The Mess in Mali

How the war on terror ruined a success story in West Africa.

It would be hard to overstate the mess that's been made out of Mali over the last fortnight. A surprise coup, an accelerating rebellion that has split the country in two, and an economic embargo by the landlocked country's neighbors have battered what had been, until recently, a West African success story. Add to that a looming food crisis in the northeast, and you have quite a fine mess. But the world can't turn away: Mali is too important to write off the country's 20-year old democracy as a failed experiment.

The coup was not accidental, as some have argued, but it was definitely improvisational.  On March 22, a mutiny in the country's main garrison turned into a coup d'état as soldiers and junior officers chased President Amadou Toumani Touré from his palace. The coup leaders, angered by a lack of military material and political will to suppress a rebellion in the country's vast Saharan region in the north, dubbed the junta a "National Committee for the Re-establishment of Democracy and the Restoration of the State" (CNRDRE).

Its name aside, the junta aims to destroy, not to establish, democratic rule -- the coup took place little more than a month before a scheduled presidential election, in which Touré was not a candidate. Since then, Mali's political parties, trade unions, and civil society organizations have with near unanimity formed a common front with one goal -- to reject the junta and demand a return to civilian rule. Internationally, the regional group ECOWAS slapped harsh sanctions on the junta and threatened military intervention if the constitutional regime is not restored.

The junta now has its back to the wall, and it is becoming increasingly clear that the coup leader, Cpt. Amadou Sanogo, has no real plan to extricate himself from this disaster. The junta's actions have been erratic: It staged the coup in order to fight the war in the north, but then sought peace negotiations with the Tuareg rebels. It proclaimed a new constitution, then rescinded it. And it announced a national conference, only to cancel it when its domestic opponents refused to attend.

In an interview published on April 4, Sanogo claimed that if the situation was allowed to fester, "both Africa and the whole world will one day be its victims." For the first time in the past two weeks, what he's saying makes some sense.

A Tuareg separatist movement called the MNLA has exploited the chaos in the capital to pursue its dream of an independent state in what it terms "the Azawad," an old regional catch-all newly redefined to include most of the Malian Sahara north and east of Timbuktu. The MNLA and various Saharan rebel movements have been at war with the Malian army since January, and the army has been losing consistently. It has suffered a double humiliation: Both Touré and now Sanogo have ordered soldiers to retreat rather than fight, and those units that have stood their ground have been over-run. In one particularly gruesome episode, defeated soldiers in the northern town of Aguelhoc had their throats slit, and images of the atrocity circulated widely.

But though the MNLA has a secular nationalist bent, the rebellion in the north is helping Islamist extremists expand their foothold in the country. The MNLA has been in a loose partnership with Ansar Dine, an Islamist group led by Iyad ag Ghali, a Tuareg who led a major rebellion in the 1990s. Ag Ghali's career is a testament to the tangled web of alliances in the region: His most recent gig was in Libya, where, according to reports, Libya's transitional government encouraged him to lead a large-scale defection of Tuareg fighters from Muammar al-Qadaffi's security forces.

Ag Ghali obliged, but the Libyan rebels' gain was the Malian government's loss when he brought several dozen men in arms into a situation in which a rebellion was already simmering in the Malian Sahara. Since then, he's fallen in with the MNLA, and he seems to have a productive working relationship with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The warriors of Ansar Dine care less about an independent Azawad than they do about an extreme Islamist program. Ansar Dine doesn't communicate much -- theirs is not a media operation -- but it's their black flag that now flies over the northern towns of Timbuktu and Gao.

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.



Great Scots

From the battlefield at Bannockburn to Dolly the sheep, the country's soaring national pride speaks volumes about the potential of a complicated dissolution from the United Kingdom.

Read the first and second part of the series here. 

EDINBURGH – Wherever you are in Scotland, you're never very far from a memorial of some kind. In fact, with a population of some 5.2 million, I suspect that if you added them up, you might find that Scotland had one of the highest number of memorials per capita in the world. And now, as Scotland thinks about its future and a likely 2014 referendum on independence, thinking about the past seems more relevant than ever.

Take the date of the referendum. There is much debate about symbolism and political potency here. Unionists want the referendum to happen soon, believing that perhaps, off the back of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, celebrating her 60 years on the throne, and the London Olympics this summer, there will be a lot of British feel-good factor which will help sway doubting Scots.

The counter argument comes from the Scottish National Party (SNP), the ruling party in Scotland, which wants to hold the referendum after the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow -- a competition in which Scotland, like every part of the United Kingdom, competes in its own right. And the SNP is also doubtless hoping that Scottish hearts will beat for independence in the wake of celebrations that June to mark the 700th anniversary of Robert the Bruce's defeat of the English at Bannockburn.

The battlefield at Bannockburn is dominated by a glowering statue of "King Robert." Not far off is the town of Stirling, which is itself dominated by a castle, described as "a great symbol of Scottish independence and a source of national pride." But it is also, says Stirling Castle's informative website, "the spiritual home" of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, a regiment formed in 1881, at the height of British imperial glory. Wander through the regimental museum and you can see how its men, or those from the antecedents of the regiment, fought in the Crimea, the Boer War, the two world wars, and so on.

When it comes to Scotland's martial history, there is no one better to talk to than Tom Devine, one of the country's most distinguished historians. Walking to his office at Edinburgh University one passes dozens of monuments and plaques to great Scots, and quite a few to other Britons, too. In the city center there is the Duke of Wellington, who defeated Napoleon. There's North Bridge over Edinburgh's main Waverly train station , which is named after the romantic historical novel by Sir Walter Scott, who in turn is himself commemorated in a black pile of a monument that looks like a giant Victorian rocket. And on North Bridge itself, there's a memorial to Scottish soldiers who fell between 1878 and 1902 in foreign battles that include Afghanistan.  

When I finally get to Devine, he tells me that, "Scottish martial history is a key part of Scottish identity." There is a "long term notion of Scottish military excellence going back to the medieval period. From the 14th to the 17th century, Scotland's biggest export were men of violence."

Indeed, the British Empire, in which Scots played leading roles, helped produce, via the military, a fusion of Scottish and British identity. But Devine says that as the empire disintegrated, that idea of a Scottish martial sense of itself, disintegrated too. Today, as the debate turns to the pros and cons of independence Devine notes, using an old-fashioned word for Scotland: "I've not heard many voices say 'we fought two world wars together' -- not in Scotia. You would hear that up to the 1970s but it does not seem to matter anymore."

So, how do Scots see themselves now? If Edinburgh's museums are anything to go by, the answer is proud. The newly refurbished National Museum of Scotland, which reopened last year and whose antecedents go back to 1780, is full of Scotland's ancient and modern. Take Dolly the (Scottish) sheep, "the first cloned mammal ever to be created from an adult cell," and now, stuffed, she takes pride of place in a glittering, rotating glass case. One suspects she will still be there long after Damien Hirst's potted shark is all but forgotten.

Nearby there is a steam engine built by Scottish-born James Watt and exhibits recalling John Logie Baird (the inventor of television) and Sir Alexander Fleming (who discovered penicillin). I am exaggerating a little bit, but the point is clear: Without the Scots there would have been no industrial revolution, TV, modern medicine, or seminal developments in modern science.

Not far away is the the newly refurbished Scottish National Portrait Gallery. It was the first national portrait gallery in the world, opened in 1889. A friend tells me that before it seemed a little embarrassed, ashamed to proclaim: Scottish and proud of it. Not anymore.

The original hall is magnificent, High Victorian Gothic, crowned with a crowded frieze of famous Scots from the Stone Age to 1889 -- including Mary Queen of Scots, David Livingstone, and Bonnie Prince Charlie. Now, the museum, which reopened in December last year seems, according to my friend, to represent the zeitgeist -- how Scotland feels about itself.

Julie Lawson, the chief curator, laughs nervously at this suggestion and says that, if my friend feels this way, then it is just a happy coincidence. She shows me Mary Queen of Scots, a section devoted to telling the story of Tartan, contemporary pictures of Scotland and more or less everything in between. This includes, of course, Robert Burns (the national poet), Sir Walter Scott (who was, Lawson says "key in creating a fantastical, theatrical Scotland") and even Queen Victoria -- British no doubt, but who did much to popularise a "romantic view" of Scotland which still "has a great hold on the imagination."

We move on to Peter Higgs of Higgs boson and Large Hadron Collider fame, naval pictures from World War I, and key figures of the Scottish Renaissance movement -- such as the poet Hugh MacDiarmid. There is also a picture of young Zulus from a South African Baptist community who have apparently adopted the wearing of kilts, which were brought to the region by Scottish soldiers in the 19th century.

Moving to the contemporary section of the gallery, the museum catalogue gets rather serious: "We cannot see our own age with the hindsight of history. But we can attempt to make judgements about the significance of current events and mark those issues we think will define our time." Here are pictures of ordinary Scots partying, a few of today's more famous Scots, and Pakistani-Scots. Scotland's modern nationalism, say supporters of independence, is of the civic, all-embracing, and non-ethnic variety. We'll see. But for now, Tom Devine is doubtless right when he says: "The Scottish brand is very powerful." Today though, it remains entwined with that of Britain. But no one says that is inextricable. 

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