Sit this One Out

Why Obama shouldn't use drones to go after Mali's Islamic radical separatists.

Something ugly is happening in the Sahel, the vast stretch of desert in the Western Sahara. In March, an Islamist group known as Ansar Dine, fighting alongside Tuareg insurgents, ousted the hapless Malian army from the northern half of the country -- the desert half -- and proclaimed the independent state of Azawad. Now, Ansar Dine has imposed the same medieval version of Sharia law practiced by al-Shabaab in Somalia, or the Taliban during their rule over Afghanistan. "Women are now forced to wear full, face-covering veils," according to one recent account. "Music is banned from the radio. Cigarettes are snatched from the mouths of pedestrians." An Ansar Dine spokesman described al Qaeda as "our Islamic brothers."

So should America start worrying about yet another haven for Islamist terrorists? Intelligence officials have been speculating for years about links between Sahelian tribes and the group known as al Qaeda in the Maghreb, or AQIM. Azawad looks like the realization of their worst nightmares. AQIM could treat Azawad as a host site, just as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has done with southern Yemen. And with the recent killing of Abu Yahya al-Libi, al Qaeda's No. 2, American officials have begun to think that the locus of jihadi activity may increasingly shift away from the Afghan-Pakistani border to the Persian Gulf and to North Africa. Azawad, in short, could be the next destination for the armed drones which have become the Obama administration's weapon of choice in the war on terror.

This would be a terrible idea. Mali isn't Yemen, and Ansar Dine isn't AQAP. Iyad Ag Ghali, the Ansar chief, is a Tuareg leader who, along with others, adopted a harsh, South Asian version of Islam in the mid-1990s; Ansar Dine itself is an indigenous movement which seeks to impose a fundamentalist vision of Islam on Mali -- but only on Mali. A 2007 academic study of the group concludes that they "have done everything in their power to make it clear that their fight is not a part of a worldwide jihad." One European NGO official who has held talks with the group says that Ansar leaders "have a more Tuareg-y feel than an AQIM-y feel." Ansar, he says, is essentially an Islamicized local insurgency.

What's more, Ansar is only half the story in northern Mali. The group has joined forces with a Tuareg movement, known as the MNLA, which has been fighting the government in Bamako for decades. The MNLA is a secular organization, which in the past has sought greater autonomy for the region and a larger role for Tuaregs in the national government. And the two groups are not getting along very well. After announcing an agreement to form a joint government, the MNLA and Ansar have had a falling out over Ansar's demand for Sharia law, as well as the MNLA's insistence that Ansar distance itself from AQIM.

What is happening in northern Mali right now is fundamentally about Mali. The Tuaregs rose up against the central government in 1996 and 2006. Then they rose up again this year. They succeeded this time for two reasons: first, because in March a military junta overthrew Mali's democratically elected government, leaving the country in even greater shambles than usual; and second, because Tuareg rebels based in Libya returned home after Moammar al-Qaddafi was overthrown, and brought heavy weapons with them. 

This is a familiar story not only in Mali but across Africa: Either a feeble central government neglects the periphery, or an authoritarian government oppresses it. Ultimately, residents of the hinterland take up arms to support their claims. In recent years, this dynamic has played out in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Ivory Coast, among other places. In an e-mail exchange, Ibrahim Ag Youssef, a Tuareg activist (and former U.N. consultant) who lives in Timbuktu, the capital of the north, insisted that "the Tuareg are not fascinated with ‘independence,'" but have lost faith in the central government's promises of more equal treatment. "A new sound basis," he wrote, "is needed to rebuild trust and the willingness to live together."

At the same time, it's a complicated version of that story. There are in fact three actors in the desert: the MNLA, Ansar Dine, and AQIM. The MNLA plainly rejects al Qaeda, but Ansar's relationship is murkier. AQIM, which has earned millions of dollars through kidnapping, may be bankrolling the Malian group. One intelligence official I spoke to said that AQIM's numbers haven't grown in recent years, and the group is not known to have launched or planned attacks beyond its own territory, as AQAP has -- but, of course, that could change if the group could operate from a fixed territorial base.

Nevertheless, the breakaway state poses a fundamentally political problem which requires a political solution. The trick is to accommodate legitimate demands without accepting the fait accompli which led to the declaration of Azawad. The barely functioning government in Bamako is in no condition to take on the insurgents, or even to negotiate with them. Intriguingly, Mali's neighbors have taken the lead in trying to sort out the mess. ECOWAS, the West African regional organization, imposed severe sanctions on Mali in order to force the junta to step down, leading to the establishment of a very rickety interim government. Now ECOWAS is trying to deal with the rebels. Regional leaders agreed to seek negotiations with them while insisting on two red lines: Sharia could not be imposed by force, and a separate state could not be established through non-constitutional means. This seems like exactly the right framework, and argues growing sophistication on the part of this sub-regional body.

ECOWAS views secession about as gravely as the United States views terrorism, and the region is now buzzing with diplomatic activity. There is talk of dispatching a small force to Bamako to stabilize the government. Djibril Bassolé, the foreign minister of Burkina Faso, is seeking to convene the states with Tuareg populations -- Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Libya, Mali, and Mauritania -- to initiate discussions with Ansar Dine and the MNLA. If efforts fail, as seem likely, ECOWAS plans to ask the African Union to go to the U.N. Security Council later this month to seek a resolution authorizing coercive measures, and even an intervening force. It all sounds very impressive, but this is one fait accompli that will be very hard to reverse. Unless the MNLA and Ansar Dine "rip each other apart," as the European NGO official puts it, "they'll be incredibly hard to dislodge."

So far, the Obama administration has steered clear of the conflict. The Pentagon is considering a request from ECOWAS for a military planner to help figure out what kind of force might be required, and what sort of mandate it would need. Otherwise, the administration’s efforts are focused on bolstering the interim government, keeping pressure on the military junta and its supporters, and putting postponed elections back on track. U.S. Special Forces teams operating out of the military base in Djibouti continue to track AQIM, and to assist local militaries (though not the preoccupied Malians just now). The administration seems content to let the neighbors take the lead -- and rightly so. There's not a great deal Washington can do to shape events in northern Mali.

When you have the wonder-hammer of drones, every problem will look like the nail of terrorism. John Brennan, Obama's counterterrorism chief, has become America's diplomatic face in Yemen, visiting regularly and dealing with the broad issues normally the province of the State Department. But Yemen is the kind of problem that can't be solved without drones (though it also can't be solved only with drones). We do not need to have the dronester-in-chief expand his portfolio to North Africa. It's in the U.S. interest to help put Mali back together. But that's a job for diplomats.


Terms of Engagement

U.N. Human Rights Council Condemns Actual Human Rights Abusers!

Or, in praise of small victories.

If you're inclined to think that "U.N. Human Rights Council" is a contradiction in terms -- and really, who isn't? -- you should look at a clip of council president Laura Dupuy Lasserre, a Uruguayan, warning a senior Bahraini official not to retaliate against activists who came to Geneva to testify about Bahrain's dreadful human rights record. "We reject such allegations," says an indignant Salah bin Ali Mohammed Abdulrahman. "We have entered a new phase in the history of our country." Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Belarus, those champions of human rights, leap to his defense, and administer a dressing-down to the council president. And Dupuy Lasserre stands her ground. "I wish to renew my expression of confidence that there will be no kind of problem involved with this," she concludes.

This is the same U.N. Human Rights Council that President George W. Bush refused to join on the grounds that it would be packed with human rights abusers who viewed Israel as the only nation worthy of criticism. His successor Barack Obama reversed that decision as part of his commitment to multilateral institutions, a move conservatives criticized, and still criticize, as naïve.

It's true that the UNHCR remains fixated on Israel; the council has a standing agenda item requiring an annual report on Israel's human rights record in the West Bank. But that's not the whole truth. The council has responded to the Arab Spring with resolutions sharply criticizing the regimes in Libya and Syria; as I write, the council is in special session to respond to the massacre in the Syrian villages of al-Houla. I'm surprised -- and critics on the right should be very surprised -- at the extent to which the United States has been able to make the Human Rights Council more effective by joining it and intensely engaging in its work, which is precisely what Obama predicted what happen.

"Until the U.S. joined," says Paula G. Schriefer, assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of International Organization Affairs, "victories were counted in the number of times you could stave off disaster." Schriefer would know: Until earlier this year she worked at the human rights organization Freedom House, where she spent years writing dismal report cards on the performance of the council and its predecessor, the Human Rights Commission. Most notoriously, after the council held a special session in 2009 on Sri Lanka's savage war against Tamil insurgents, it issued a resolution congratulating Colombo for the campaign, despite the death of tens of thousands of civilians. This past March, however, despite overwhelming pressure from the Sri Lankan government, the council voted to require Sri Lanka to investigate those deaths, and ordered the U.N.'s high commissioner for human rights to report on its compliance. "It's becoming the new normal that the council does the right thing," Schriefer says.

Admonishing human rights abusers like Bahrain, Syria or Sri Lanka will not, of course, change their behavior. In the end, only internal pressure can compel an oppressive  regime to do so. But these public dramas help empower internal critics: the Bahrain Center for Human Rights exulted at the pasting government officials took in Geneva. And states cannot dismiss the council as a tool of the West; many of the toughest criticisms have come from emerging democracies, including Brazil and Mexico. India, long a protector of authoritarian allies, voted for the Sri Lanka resolution.

Indeed, the council's effectiveness reflects the growing importance of non-Western rights-respecting countries. In years past, even Third World democracies could be counted on to toe the line laid down by states like Cuba, which dominated internal debate in the so-called Group of 77 developing nations. That's no longer true, and democracies like Brazil take offense at the claim that human rights are a peculiarly Western preoccupation. These states are increasingly eager to stand up for their democratic principles in international fora (though they continue to treat Israel as the one democracy worthy of perpetual condemnation).

At the same time, the U.S. role has been vital. Obama appointed as ambassador Eileen Donahoe, a major Democratic donor (though also a scholar at Stanford University). But Donahoe has surprised human rights activists who saw her as a classic political appointee. Tom Malinowski, the Washington director for Human Rights Watch, describes Donahoe as "the best diplomat the U.S. has ever had in Geneva." Donahoe has worked closely with developing-word democracies as well as with Western allies to pass country-specific resolutions, to restore a special rapporteur on Iran and the like.

One of Donahoe's more obscure achievements is changing the procedure known as Universal Periodic Review, which is what brought the Bahraini delegation to Geneva. When the council was established to replace the disgraced Human Rights Commission, one of its major selling points was that every country in the world would have its human rights record subjected to a peer-review process. Countries would draw up a report, and states would have the right to question their claims and recommend changes. But authoritarian regimes gamed the system by prevailing on their friends to line up in advance -- sleeping on the steps, according to one human rights official -- to pack the list of questioners, lob softballs, and seek vacuous "reforms." Even the on-the-level reviews were marked by timidity and diplomatic politesse. Tunisia was applauded as a model of development.

This year, with all 192 countries having undergone review, and a new round set to begin, the rules were revised so that all members could intervene. As it happened, Bahrain was the first to go, last week. The delegation presented a bland report on issues like access to health care and child protection, and observed that events of the last year had "enabled Bahrain to realize significant human rights reforms and achievements in favour of citizens." Bahrain, of course, has been accused of jailing and torturing regime opponents and imprisoning medical personnel who seek to treat injured activists. And states, mainly though not wholly Western, raised all of these concerns, and called on Bahrain to change laws and accede to treaties in order to ensure the protection of rights.  The Bahrainis, of course, demurred: "The head of the delegation reiterated that there were no detainees of freedom of expression and opinion..." But they were handed 176 recommendations to which they will have to respond before the next session, four years hence.

The confrontation with Dupuy Lasserre arose because Bahraini human rights activists who came to Geneva to testify to the harsh practices they endured were being labeled as traitors and Iranian agents in the country's press. Dupuy Lasserre spoke up publicly to remind the official delegation of the obligation to protect those who provide information to the council. She then read out the names of each individual who had done so -- "so you can carry out your followup." Abdulrahman, Bahrain's human rights minister, denied that the activists were endangered, and added ominously, "I would like to know which party communicated that information to you." It has since been reported that the group is to be summoned to the Ministry of Interior for interrogation. There is certainly no reason to feel confident that Dupuy Lasserre's willingness to put the Bahrainis on notice will deter them from subjecting human rights activists to the kind of intimidation and mistreatment that has become routine over the last year.

So yes, in the end it's only words. If the Obama administration, with all its leverage, can't make the Bahrain regime stop targeting the peaceful opposition, neither can Universal Periodic Review or Ms. Dupuy Lasserre. But words do matter; if they didn't, all that Israel-bashing wouldn't raise such hackles. The Human Rights Council can increase the reputational cost for bad behavior, and point a way toward better behavior for those willing to change. The Obama administration has gotten something valuable in exchange for a very modest investment.