I’m going to be honest: I know virtually nothing about Mali. I could find it on a map and I could find it on Wikipedia, and that’s pretty much it. I don’t think I’m the only person in this situation. Unlike most of the media, though, I’m going to be honest about my own ignorance up front. Make of it what you will. No special knowledge or sources are present in what follows. Any reporter could garner the same facts from a quick trawl of Wikipedia, which is what I did.
All of that said, it’s a rare occasion on which I find myself endorsing a move made by the federal government these days. Fortunately it didn’t last long. Today Harper trotted out our ambassador there to deliver the following absurd piece of doublespeak which somehow, and wholly unintentionally, manages to sum up everything that is wrong with the war there:
“The coup in March 2012 undermined Mali’s progress as a democracy and provided Islamist extremists with a window that has had devastating consequences.”
Which is sort of like saying that beating your wife undermines your progress towards not beating your wife, isn’t it? More directly put, the official objective of the West in the Malian intervention appears to be that if we bomb, shell and bayonet some insurgents that are fighting a military dictatorship, said dictatorship will be so grateful for our help that it will promptly become a democracy. Most people in the West, and I count myself among this number, have virtually no idea what factions we’re supporting or opposing in Mali. Our leaders may not, either. This would seem like a prerequisite for sensible talk about military strategy. There’s even talk about fighting Al Qaeda in Mali, which is phenomenal. To my knowledge, Al Qaeda as such isn’t even in Mali.
Here’s the basic situation, as far as I can see it. Last year there was a rebellion by the ethnic Tuareg in northern Mali. The Tuareg are a little like the Kurds: a large population with no state of their own and sizeable populations in several neighbouring countries. Some of them supported the late Gaddafi regime in Libya, and were armed by it. Some of them opposed that regime and even joined the Libyan rebels. Some of them don’t want to have any part in fighting either the Libyan government or the Malian government, much less the West.
One large group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (the MNLA), was one of the leading forces behind last year’s rebellion. Most of the group are Tuareg, but it is actually ethnically diverse. The specified objective is the independence of northern Mali, as the new state of Azawad. In doing so they formed a loose alliance of common interest with Ansar Dine, an Islamist group which is alleged to have an alliance with the Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb, which is a terrorist organization whose official objective is the overthrow of the government of Algeria, and which changed its name to “Al Qaeda” only in 2007. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has then been alleged to have links to the actual terrorist organization Al Qaeda, although these are mainly speculative and probably more philosophical than substantive.
Ansar Dine are not the only Islamists active in northern Mali. As all this was going on, another new group formed, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA). Unlike Ansar Dine, MOJWA really is a splinter group of the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which, to repeat, is not the same organization as Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is only interested in seizing power in Algeria. MOJWA wants to establish a much larger West African Islamic state, although so far its operations have been confined to Mali and Algeria. MOJWA joined Ansar Dine and MNLA in fighting the government of Mali.
The resulting alliance had some initial successes against government forces in the north. In response, the Malian military overthrew the democratically elected government of President Amadou Toumani Toure, claiming the government’s conduct of the war had been incompetent and had therefore caused a national crisis. Toure was evidently given a choice between a conviction for treason and exile. He chose exile, and is now living in Senegal. Since then, the military has cancelled a scheduled election and installed a nominally civilian leadership while it focuses on the war in the north.
In the meantime, the MNLA-Ansar Dine alliance broke down. Exactly why is unclear, but it might be because Ansar Dine insisted on consolidating power by instituting strict Sharia law in captured towns, while the MNLA was more interested in finishing the war of independence against Mali. The matter came to blows last summer, and since then there has essentially been a three-way conflict in northern Mali.
Enter the Western intervention. We now have a three-way conflict in which we are attempting to decide which side to bomb. The Government of Mali wants to secure its northern territory, at the expense of democracy. The MNLA is willing to help us wipe out the Islamists, but in exchange demands autonomy for the north. The Islamists want to eliminate the Malian dictatorship too, but only on the condition that it be replaced with an Islamic state based on Shariah law. At least some of the MNLA are probably also Islamists. Many leaders on all three sides are probably corrupt, opportunistic warlords.
Now, which side you want to take in this conflict, and how, is up to you. There are arguments both for and against intervention. But blundering into the middle of it with a vague idea that we have to “beat Al Qaeda before Mali turns into Afghanistan” seems at the very least unwise.