This partnership is a sticky one. Outside attention is focused on Ansar Dine, but their fighters number only around 200 to 300 men, are locally unpopular, and hold long-term goals that seem to be at odds with those of the MNLA. The latter has many more, and recently received a big boost when one of the Malian army's Tuareg commanders defected, bringing with him several hundred men. Still, the MNLA's military strength is thought to be limited, and the battle-hardened and well-armed men of the Ansar Dine appears increasingly to have taken the upper hand.
The MNLA is aware that the real war for the Azawad will be waged by its media wing. Refusing to be governed by the people of the south and harboring great resentment over the harsh repression of past rebellions, the MNLA wants to be seen as a legitimate nationalist movement. Colluding with the Ansar Dine adds extra bite to MNLA's bark, but it also discredits a movement that wants desperately to be taken seriously by outside actors, particularly France. Talking sharia won't help with that -- nor will stories coming out of Timbuktu and Gao regarding the imposition of a crude, vigilante version of Islamic law. There is no quicker way for the MNLA to lose its thin veneer of respectability than to keep hanging around with the wrong crowd.
Mali has already paid a high price for the failure of French anti-terrorist policies in the Sahara. Mali was long spared the trauma of having its Western visitors kidnapped -- a practice that over the last few years has become one of the Sahara's most profitable industries, generating millions of dollars in ransoms. After a bloody 2010 Franco-Mauritanian raid aimed at rescuing a French hostage from AQIM -- a raid that took place on Malian territory, but without Touré's knowledge -- that all changed. Seven members of AQIM had been killed. Later, the hostage would be, too, but AQIM still wanted revenge: no more gentlemen's agreement not to raid on Malian territory.
Mali became a hunting ground for potential hostages, kidnapped by freelancers or on commission, who could be sold to AQIM. Worse, France dealt a brutal blow to Mali's important tourist industry and its international reputation by effectively declaring the country a "no-go zone."
At the same time, both France and the United States were pushing the central government to reassert control in the desert. In spite of promises made over the last 15 years by successive Malian governments to assure the autonomy of the Saharan region, the zone was being remilitarized. Bringing a halt to that process is where the interests of the secular nationalist MNLA, the newly emergent Ansar Dine, and perhaps AQIM intersect.
Did the Libyan conflict -- and NATO's intervention in it -- light this long fuse? Did Mali lose Timbuktu because NATO saved Benghazi? Informed observers disagree. Some think the conflict was virtually inevitable, with or without men and arms from Libya. Others see a direct knock-on effect from Libya that upset a delicate balance. Whatever the case, it is undeniable that, as a consequence of the Libyan campaign, a stronger, more intense insurgency in the Malian Sahara was not only predictable but predicted. Everyone who was watching saw it coming from afar.
What's the fruit, then, of American action in the Sahel over the last several years? It might be too soon to say definitively, but it appears to be a bitter one. Much has been made of the fact that Sanogo has American military training, and briefly affected a U.S. Marine Corps lapel pin. Those details -- and the fact that he apparently speaks English -- are surely less important than the stunning fact that a decade of American investment in Special Forces training, cooperation between Sahalien armies and the United States, and counterterrorism programs of all sorts run by both the State Department and the Pentagon has, at best, failed to prevent a new disaster in the desert and, at worst, sowed its seeds.
Signs of the failure of U.S. counterterrorism policy in Mali abound wherever one looks. Military cooperation and training have not helped the army to hold the line in the north, and all the training in the world was not going to convince Touré to lead Mali into fighting what he termed "other people's wars" in the desert. Now it is no longer his decision to make, and the country's future leadership will have no choice but to prosecute a war that has become its own. The national territory is now divided de facto, but neither Mali nor its neighbors will accept its division de jure.
At the moment, the political game in Mali resembles two games of three-dimensional chess being played simultaneously. The first game is in the capital, where Sanogo is in over his head and seems to have no real plan for what to do next. That political game is currently at a stalemate, but a variety of opponents are looking to maneuver Sanogo into checkmate. In the second game, the Malian Sahara represents both the board and the prize -- and neither the Malian military nor its rivals knows what the rules are. But the game is on.