Mali: The North Is Lost

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September 27, 2023: Islamic terrorist violence in the north has left nearly 200 dead in the last month. The military government of Mali was dismayed to discover that the expensive Russian mercenaries were unable to deal with the rebels in the far north. Now these Islamic terrorist rebel attacks are moving closer to the capital in the far south. The failure of the Russian mercenaries was partly due to the recent demise of their leaders back in Russia. Soon after the Wagner Group business jet went down in Russia, apparently due to sabotage by the Russian government, a Russian general showed up in Mali to inform the Russian mercenaries and their Mali employers that there were some changes. Wagner Group no longer existed and has been replaced by another mercenary outfit controlled by the Russian government. The general told the Wagner men in Mali that they could continue operating as mercenaries but that the Russian Ministry of Defense would command and pay them. Any men who did not want to work for the new organization could just leave, but not return to Russia, where they might be arrested for criminal behavior in Mali.

Back in Russia, the government has settled its disputes with the Wagner Group by giving Wagner Group personnel overseas a choice of either working for the Russian military or being declared outlaws and no longer have any official or financial connection with the government. The Mali government was informed of this change and advised that it was in Mali’s interest to deal directly with the Russian government about Russian troops in Mali and requisitions for more weapons and munitions from Russia. Previously the Mali military government used locally mined gold to pay for Russian weapons and the services of Russian mercenaries and soldiers. Mali is a major producer of gold and the Russians have always been willing to accept payments in gold. Russia maintains a huge gold stockpile (about 2,300 tons), the fifth largest in the world. The Russian gold is an emergency fund that is now being tapped to pay for military operations in Ukraine.

The military government in Mali hoped that hiring Russian Wagner Group mercenaries would enable Mali to maintain control of northern and central Mali. These two regions have been under growing attack by Islamic terror groups but the Russians made it worse. The Mali military government is running out of people to blame for the mess they got themselves into. The problems began when the military government ordered the independent French Barkhane counter-terrorism force out of Mali and it was gone by the end of 2021. More recently Mali forced the 15,000 UN peacekeepers to start withdrawing.

The government forced the French and African G5 peacekeepers out by the end of 2021. In 2017 Mali, Chad, Niger, the Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso agreed to form a new “G5 counter-terrorism force” that would work in cooperation with the similar but larger and better equipped French force that had been operating in the Sahel since 2014. The Sahel is the semi-desert area south of the Sahara Desert that covers much of northern Africa.

Back then the French concluded that the Sahel was still troubled by thousands of Islamic terrorists and that this situation could not be taken care of quickly. In order to maintain pressure on the Islamic terrorists, France established a special force of 3,000 troops to fight Islamic terrorists throughout the Sahel. In practice this meant just part of the Sahel and included Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso. This French force grew to some 4,000 troops equipped with 200 armored vehicles, 20 transport and attack helicopters, six jet fighters and three large UAVs. There are also two twin engine C-160 air transports available for use within the Sahel. Supplies and reinforcements were regularly flown in using long-range transports (like the C-17) belonging to NATO allies (especially the U.S. and Britain). From the beginning the French force included a thousand French troops in Mali and the rest dispersed to other Sahel bases and ready to quickly move anywhere in the region where Islamic terrorist activity had been detected. The G5 nations already cooperated by sharing intelligence and providing quick access to their territory by the French force. In addition, the Americans provided satellite and UAV surveillance and other intel services (especially analysis and access to nearly all American data on Islamic terrorist activities in the region). Each of the G5 member countries contribute from 500 to 2,000 personnel and consist largely of special operations troops. Many of these troops have already worked with their French counterparts or been trained by French or American special operations advisors.

All this was meant to keep the Islamic terrorists in the Sahel weak and disorganized. That worked until recently when the current Mali military regime ordered the French/G5 force out. AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), which has been around since 2007, was still in business as gangsters smuggling drugs and illegal migrants north and getting support from Islamic terrorists in Europe and the Persian Gulf. Islamic terrorists continue to carry out attacks in Mali, mainly the north and the G5 states to let the world know that Islamic terrorists are still present in the area.

Another reminder has been the high casualty rate among peacekeepers in Mali. UN peacekeepers in Mali suffered 26 dead during 2016, the highest number of any UN peacekeeping operation and 90 percent of the UN peacekeeper deaths in 2016, even though the Mali force comprises less than 15 percent of all UN peacekeepers. The Mali peacekeepers have been in this situation for three years in a row. Over a hundred peacekeepers (mostly UN, but some French) have died in Mali since they arrived in 2013. This is the highest casualty rate of all current UN peacekeeping operations.

Mali wanted to keep the 13,500 UN peacekeepers who maintain government control over the rebellious north. These peacekeepers are supplied by AU (African Union) nations and some of the African nations supplying these peacekeepers are withdrawing that support. A few percent of the peacekeeping force consists of troops from NATO nations that supply specialized services, especially transport helicopters and other services. People in areas where the peacekeepers are stationed warn that the security situation will deteriorate once the peacekeepers depart because the military government has not got the ability to maintain local security. That’s going to hurt the economy and cause more residents to flee the country. This is how corruption often ruins the local economy. Then again, elected officials were often corrupt. The pattern is that too many corrupt elected officials leads to rebellion or, more likely, a coup by the military, who tend to be no more effective than the people they replaced.

There was growing opposition among UN members for maintaining the expensive peacekeeper force, which is the most dangerous the UN is currently involved with. The Mali peacekeeping operation costs about half a billion dollars a month and that is about the only foreign aid Mali gets now that the military government is in control. Most foreign aid was halted because the government was stealing so much of the aid. It is difficult to steal any of the money spent on peacekeepers but the government seems to be trying to do just that.

Once the UN voted to maintain the Mali peacekeeping force for another year, the military government began harassing the peacekeepers and threatening to expel all of them. The peacekeepers serve on contracts (with the UN) for varying periods usually between two and six months. The withdrawal of the peacekeepers began on July 1st and will be completed by the end of 2023.

Foreign aid is crucial in Africa because corruption limits the amount of money governments can spend on essential infrastructure, health or food aid programs. That means, when a coup takes place, the new military government finds itself isolated, criticized and denied most forms of foreign aid or cooperation. In Niger that meant the air space over Niger was closed after the recent coup there. Neighboring nations closed their borders with Niger. The coup leaders are isolated, criticized and left with few options other than abandoning their effort to make their version of local government work. Some military governments last for years by creating a plausible, to most of the locals, external threat. Their neighbors and foreign aid donors usually quickly denounce this fiction. The Niger military government will remain in power for a while.

During the Cold War unelected governments could keep the aid coming by playing off the Western and communist donors against each other. After the Cold War ended in 1991, the only donors left were Western democracies. Dictatorships tend to be much less affluent and unable to provide much aid to anyone. Such an environment is common throughout Africa, especially where there are valuable raw materials that generate even more corruption. Niger does not have any valuable natural resources and must import more than it exports. This imbalance is made possible by lots of foreign aid. When there is a coup, the food, medical and similar aid generally continues unless the new government tries to steal the aid.

The current Niger coup has shut down American military operations because air space has been closed by neighboring countries that do not permit legal aircraft operations into or out of Niger. This is what has put the two American air bases at risk of being shut down permanently. Before the coup, Niger was considered one of the more stable African countries foreign air forces could operate out of. There are about 2,000 American and French military personnel in Niger and the longer the coup continues the more likely those troops will be withdrawn.

American UAV bases in Niger have been operational since 2019. The Niger government gave American and French UAVs operating in or over Niger permission to carry Hellfire missiles and other guided weapons inside Niger. For the most part this means U.S. and French MQ-9 Reaper UAVs operating from existing bases in Niger, Mali and Djibouti. France also operates manned combat aircraft from bases in Mali. EU peacekeepers also operate armed UAVs and helicopters in northern Mali. Initially there were only about 800 U.S. troops in Niger, most of them maintaining the aerial surveillance UAVs and other aircraft and helping train Niger troops. Then there was an incident where four American Special Forces soldiers were killed when the training exercise (a large patrol) they were supervising clashed with Islamic terrorists operating near the Mali border. Four of the Niger troops were killed as well and even more American and Niger troops were wounded. This led Niger to allow armed UAVs to operate in Niger. In the past there had not been many situations calling for rapid response by armed aircraft. The early Special Forces incident made it clear the situation had changed. Before that it was possible to get foreign aircraft to come and carry out an air strike but the process took time. The Niger and American troops were not expecting to encounter such a large force of Islamic terrorists and having armed UAVs on call would have made a big difference. The military coup in Niger has not shut down American UAV operations from the Niger airbases. The military governments in Mali, Niger and now Burkina Faso all want the American UAV operations to continue, as do nations in the area with elected governments and fewer problems with Islamic terrorists. The American UAVs track the operations of Islamic terrorists and provide aerial photos and videos to document what is happening on the ground. The return of military governments in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso were the result of poor performance by elected, but very corrupt, governments. The military governments are not much of an improvement and their ability to deal with Islamic terrorists or local rebels is largely an illusion. Without the foreign peacekeepers Western specialists the Islamic terrorists run wild. Not all African nations are afflicted by this, but most are and Islamic terrorists thrive in that kind of environment.

The current problem is largely the result of the success of French counter-terror operations in Mali a decade ago and the more recent defeat of Boko Haram in Nigeria. In both cases many of the surviving Islamic terrorists fled to Niger. This has been going on for some time and Niger has responded by allowing in more and more foreign assistance.

The army and a small number of Russian (Wagner Group) military contractors have been unable, or unwilling, to carry on with that effort or prevent the Islamic terror groups from crossing the Niger border and advancing into Mali. Thes include an al Qaeda alliance called JNIM (Jamâ’ah Nusrah al Islâm wal Muslimîn, or Group for the support of Islam and Moslems) and the more violent groups like ISGS (Islamic States in Greater Sahara), which is one of the two ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) groups in the region. When they showed up in 2018, ISGS operated mainly in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, especially the area where the three borders met. Until recently those Islamic terrorists were a problem but now they are a real threat to the normally well defended capitals of all three countries.

September 25, 2023: The military government that has ruled Mali since 2020 announced that promised elections in February 2024 were not taking place on time because of problems with organizing the voting. In June there was a national vote on a new constitution to replace the military government and the 30 percent of voters who participated approved the proposal. The new constitution is supposed to make possible a return of elected government in 2024 with another round of elections. Details of the new constitution indicate that the military will still have a lot of power. The return of elections is mainly about reviving foreign aid, which largely stopped because of the military government and expulsion of peacekeepers. Mali replaced the peacekeepers with a smaller force of Russian Wagner Group mercenaries.

September 21, 2023: The Mali military government has canceled any festivities to celebrate Mali Independence Day on the 22nd. It’s too dangerous and the army cannot provide sufficient security to prevent a catastrophic attack.

September 16, 2023: In the Mali capital, representatives from Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso worked out details of forming AES (Alliance of Sahel States). The alliance is meant to improve security for all these nations. Currently Islamic terror groups are attacking all AES members. Burkina Faso is the worst hit, with about 40 percent of its territory controlled by Islamic terrorists. Mali and Niger fear the same fate will befall them.

September 12, 2023: In the north (outside Gao and Timbuktu) the Tuareg CMA (Coordination of Azawad Movements) mobilized its armed members to join the fighting in the north. Over a decade ago, most Tuareg groups agreed to put aside their disagreements and form a unified group. CMA had long been a pro-government Tuareg coalition that had not resolved all their clan and family disputes. Azawad is the Tuareg term for their homeland in northern Mali and several other North African nations. The 2015 peace deal ended the Tuareg support for Islamic terrorism, but not the ethnic animosities. These local, and often ancient, disagreements and feuds are often not connected with the 2012 rebellion in the north nor the continuing Islamic terrorism problems, but they do cause security problems that interfere with rebuilding the economy and much else. The Tuareg peace deal was stalled for years because the black majority in the south did not want to even consider granting as much autonomy as the Tuaregs demanded. The two groups have always been at odds but were only united in the same country by the colonial French in the 19th century. Like most African countries that were formerly European colonies, dividing the post-colonial nation is not an acceptable option and the colonial borders are considered sacrosanct. The current mess began when France took swift action in January 2013 by leading a military operation to clear Islamic terrorists out of northern Mali. Aided by Chad and a growing number of other African peacekeeping contingents, this effort continues and is somewhat open ended. The French acted because in 2012 Tuareg tribal rebels (with the help of al Qaeda affiliated Islamic terrorists) in northern Mali chased out government forces and declared a separate Tuareg state. The Mali army mutinied because of a lack of support from the corrupt government down south and took control of the capital. The army is still in charge and not showing any signs of confirming the old peace deals with the CMA. So, the CMA will defend its people in the north.

September 11, 2023: In the north (Timbuktu) the only commercial airline operating between Timbuktu and the rest of the country ceased operations in Timbuktu because of the increasing violence. Islamic terrorists have besieged Timbuktu and threatened the airport. Only some military air traffic uses the airport now that may soon cease if the Islamic terrorist siege force around the city advances. In Gao, the other major town in the north, a Belorussian Il-76 transport crashed while landing at the Gao airport. The large aircraft was delivering military supplies and personnel for Russian mercenaries in the area.

September 7, 2023: In the north (near Gao) JNIM gunmen attacked river traffic and an army base, killing at least 49 civilians and 15 soldiers. The army claims to have killed 50 of the attackers but that is unlikely. Islamic terrorists tend to back off if they encounter armed resistance. JNIM tried to gather a large armed force and attack military bases or convoys at night, or just before dawn. They achieve surprise and these attacks usually work. The recent attack near Gao was only a partial success. With the peacekeepers withdrawing and the Mali soldiers intimidated, the Islamic terror groups are making the most of it and attacking more frequently.

August 25, 2023: Northwest of Moscow, Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin and six of his associates died when the business jet they were on crashed, apparently because of an explosion on the aircraft. Prigozhin had long worked directly for Vladimir Putin but the two now had a number of disagreements. Putin was blamed for the crash, but there was no proof and probably never will be. Putin had recently told Russians working for Wagner in Mali that they were now working for the Russian government, not Wagner. Prigozhin refused to cooperate and Putin saw this as treason but had not made any official move to punish Prigozhin. Some Wagner Group members accused Putin of complicity in the death of Prigozhin. Many Russians agree but do not do so publicly. Putin expressed condolences to the families of those who died in the crash and noted he and Prigozhin had worked together since the 1990s and that Prigozhin and Wagner Group had fought well for Russia in Ukraine. Putin will continue to offer Wagner Group members jobs with the Russian military.

 

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