May 25, 2012

Northern Mali's Mushrooming Uncertainty

Despite NATO's fear that Libya's civil war could trigger new unrest in its neighbors, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and Ansar Dine's rapid seizure of northern Mali appeared to catch all involved parties off guard. Having disposed of Mali's president after accusing his government of negligence and corruption, a military coup led by Captain Amadou Sanogo soon watched Timbukfu fall to Tuareg insurgents and Islamist ideologists. Ensuing attempts to configure a new government are marred in political and popular strife. Outside Mali, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has vacillated between negotiating a new government and entering the country to confront both dilemmas. 

Western countries are similarly wary of intervening in an internal political dispute and a regional insurgency.

Although the situation in northern Mali is ripe for an al-Qaeda induced overreaction, there is something equally disturbing about the West's relative silence. With Yemen now receiving the majority of America's terror-related attention, northern Mali remains a low public priority for the Obama administration and creeps below the U.S. media's radar as a result. The administration is presumably constructing a new contingency for an event that semi-officially began in October 2011, and the lack of media attention has helped contain the demand for an overt counterterrorism response. Northern Mali's socio-religious environment is incredibly complex, to locals and foreigners alike, and outside forces cannot kill the MNLA or Ansar Dine into submission. 

Highlighting its nationalist roots, the MNLA has rejected speculation that most fighters and commanders fled from Libya. Problematically, the West's resistance to most African independence movements (including the Tuaregs) is driving the MNLA into a partnership with Ansar Dine, a group with established links to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). 

After announcing that the MNLA does not tolerate terrorism and calling for international support, the group has modified its narrative in recent days. Speaking to Magharebia following a tentative political agreement with Ansar Dine (along with the Arab Front for the Defense of Identity and Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa), MNLA member Nina Welet Ntalo said the factions have "agreed to choose Belal Ag Sharif, head of the MNLA political bureau, to lead the interim government." This agreement has yet to be finalized, but the emerging double-edged sword has the potential to minimize or agitate Mali's situation. Regional analysts observe a weakening in the MNLA's secular authority, increasing the need to broaden its Islamic outreach. 

Together the two groups can provide more effective oversight for ethnic and religious issues.

Realizing that Ansar Dine and its Taureg leader, former MLNA personality Iyad Ag Ghaly, cannot be evicted without major damage to its own network, the MNLA appears to be keeping its competition within sight. "Join them if you can't beat them" goes the cliche, and the MNLA intends to neutralize Ag Ghaly by giving him a piece of northern Mali's political pie. Amid ongoing accounts of the imposition of Sharia in Timbuktu, a senior MLNA commander (who refused to be identified) told Magharebia that his group "agreed with Iyad Ag Ghaly Sunday evening on the principle of Azawad state independence." He also claimed that the two groups agreed to remove Ansar Dine's black flag from Timbuktu and "install MNLA flags instead." 

"As to work under Islamic Sharia, we agreed that the choice will be for the Azawad people through a popular referendum about accepting the Islamic Sharia or secular system." 

In exchange the MNLA hopes to separate Ansar Dine from AQIM, whose foreign members have been spotted in Timbuktu, and resolve international suspicions over their movement. Thus the MNLA can remain opposed to terrorism while entering into an alliance with Ansar Dine. The anonymous MNLA commander confirmed that his group is urging Ag Ghaly to "abandon" his alliance with AQIM, but the charismatic commander has refused to do and may never make this decision. However AQIM leader Abu Musab Abdul Wadud (known as Abdelmalek Droukdel) reciprocated after the MNLA and Ansar Dine signed their initial agreement, ordering the latter to respect the MNLA and gradually impose Sharia law.

 "Avoid as much as you can problems with the (MNLA), and stay away from provoking them as much as you can," he advises Ag Ghaly. "Invite them to cooperate to establish the common ground and reject the conflicts." 

In doing so, Droukdel intends to mask AQIM activity under the accepted presence of Ag Ghaly's faction: "practice all their field activities concerning the sharia-implementation project in the Azawad region under the cover of (Ansar Dine) and keep the cover of (AQIM) limited to our activities in the global jihad." Taking these evolving factors into consideration, how long is the international community - both African and Western powers - willing to let Ansar Dine fester? Military force appears to be a non-starter in northern Mali, an undeveloped space covering more territory than southern Afghanistan, Somalia or Yemen. While the MNLA and Ansar Dine's combined strength is estimated at a modest 4,000 fighters (more heavily armed than before), Mali's terrain and non-military dimensions are likely to overpower any military response by ECOWAS, the AU or UN. That leaves a political response as the only realistic strategy to a political conflict. 

Unfortunately African and Western powers still appear to be searching for direction in the hazy Sahel.

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