Ag-Ghali, on the other hand, has attempted to impose a crude vigilante version of sharia that -- judging by courageous street protests in Gao and Kidal, and by the hundreds of thousands of people who have fled it -- has little popular support in northern Mali. Some outside observers have compared Ansar Dine's attacks on the Timbuktu shrines to the Taliban's 2001 destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan. But those were Buddhas without Buddhists, and the loudest protests came from the international community, not Afghans themselves. The mosques, mausoleums, and rare Arabic manuscripts of Timbuktu, on the other hand, represent a tradition that the city's residents are proud of and which many recognize as an important resource, drawing state support, international assistance, and -- in better days -- a vibrant tourism industry.
If anything makes Mali like Afghanistan, it's the drug trade, which Ag-Ghali and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) control. Over the last several years, Mali, like Guinea Bissau and Guinea, has become a major node in the smuggling networks that bring Latin American cocaine to Europe. But the similarities here too are pretty superficial. The drugs are not produced in Mali; they only transit through it. As French political scientist Jean-François Bayart has argued, that makes Mali a lot more like Mexico than Afghanistan. The drug trade does not have a positive impact on the life of the average person in northern Mali, who has no access to its benefits. To the contrary, it brings gangsters, ad hoc airstrips, and the burnt-out fuselages of abandoned Boeings. The growth of drug smuggling -- and hostage-taking, another big business -- also makes it harder for many northerners to earn a living: no tourism, no development projects, and presumably no possibility of smuggling cigarettes, cars, and people as easily as one could do before the rebellion. But above all, unlike Afghanistan, Mali has no poppy farmers, and thus the drug lords have no popular support.
Of course, the reason West Africans and others make the Afghan comparison is to sound the alarm over an emerging Islamist safe haven in the Sahara that could be used as a launching pad for international attacks. Neighboring countries have already suffered from terrorist attacks -- and AQIM has made clear that France is its primary target. The Saharan debacle is serious stuff, no doubt, and it has implications well beyond the boundaries of the countries that share the desert. But here's one Mali-Afghanistan comparison that does work: It represents a golden opportunity for outsiders to turn a nasty mess into a complete disaster.
We might do better to think about what Mali actually is than to think about what it might be like. We might also want to think about the interventions that have already occurred in the region, and what they wrought, before championing new ones. External forces went a long way toward creating the current mess in the Sahara. By pushing well-armed Tuareg fighters -- including high-ranking officers in Muammar al-Qaddafi's army -- out of Libya, NATO's 2011 bombing campaign accelerated a brewing rebellion in the north, one that began in January before being hijacked by Islamists over the last few months.
Although Tuareg separatism has deep local roots, outside meddling also helped catalyze this year's rebellion. American insistence over the last several years that the Malian military re-establish a presence in the Sahara fit the logic of U.S. counterterrorism programs, but it went against the spirit of the 2006 Algiers accords between Bamako and an earlier generation of Tuareg rebels. Those accords had mandated a diminished presence of state security forces in the desert, and the violation of them became one of the MNLA's signature grievances. Other outside interventions may have been more direct. Many in Mali and elsewhere believe that in the midst of a tough re-election campaign, French President Nicolas Sarkozy at least tacitly supported the MNLA in the hope that they could win the release of French hostages held by AQIM in the desert. Evidence for this is mostly circumstantial, and if that was the plan, it didn't work out so well. Still, it might help explain why, after Sarkozy's defeat, MNLA spokesmen went out of their way to thank him for his support and understanding.
Soon after Sarkozy left office, the MNLA was broke. Its fighters began to drift towards Ag-Ghali, and soon the secular nationalists were shaking hands with the Islamist Ansar Dine and talking about imposing sharia in the north. That accord had the lifespan of an ice cream cone in August -- the MNLA's diplomatic wing realized what a disaster it would be for the group's image, and people in Kidal wouldn't stand for it -- but it was telling nonetheless. The takeaway? The MNLA is hardly a horse you can bet on.
In spite of this history of unstable allegiances, some analysts persist in thinking that a proxy war in the desert -- in which outside powers like the U.S. would support the separatist MNLA against the Islamist Ansar Dine -- is a good idea. This is so foolish it makes the head spin. Tuareg separatists -- like the Islamists, or like the neighboring states of Algeria, Mauritania, and Niger -- will always be fighting their own war, not that of the Americans or anyone else.