Category Archives: Mali

The Simmering Maghreb

Arab Spring

Arab Spring

Starting in Tunisia with the self immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi in late December of 2010, Arab Spring spread like wildfire, bowling over four governments and straining all their neighbors. Three years have passed and a wave of weapons from Libya, coupled with fighters from all over, have destabilized the ring of nations adjacent to those which have already revolted.

North Africa Islamist Troubles

North Africa Islamist Troubles

The nations in the next tier to the south are equally disturbed, with Boko Haram in Nigeria to al Shabaab attacks in Kenya, while the Central African Republic is melting down due to internal issues and unfinished business due to the separation of South Sudan threatens to revive their conflict with Sudan.

Central Africa

Central Africa

Imperial implosions are always messy affairs. North Africa bear the marks of lines that have been repeatedly redrawn over the last 1200 years. The continent had hardly finished digesting the 20th century collapse of the English and French imperial efforts before the Soviet Union took a tumble. The U.S. is in a similar position to what the Soviet Union faced in the late 1980s, militarily and financially exhausted, staggering home from long running low intensity conflicts.

I mentioned AFRICOM’s expansion in U.S. Military in Africa and 2014 will bring both a Quadrennial Defense Review as well as the second ever Quadrennial Diplomacy & Development Review. I am looking forward to comparing the 2010 documents to what will be presented for 2014, seeking clues as to what our stance will be in this region.

French Intervention In Mali

Africa Colonial State Borders

I found this map a few days ago and I’ve been wanting to make a post just so I can get it into my media collection. Understanding French intervention in Mali seems a good first use of it.

European powers controlled just 10% of Africa in when Germany was formally unified in 1871. Thirty years later the entire continent had been partitioned in the Scramble for Africa, with the exception of Abyssinia, which we now call Ethiopia. France itself is 213,000 square miles. The blue are on the map covers their holdings in Africa – 3.4 million square miles.

The United States freed itself of British rule over two hundred years ago, but the French colonies of Africa mostly exited as a group in 1960. Algeria took eight years to free itself, from 1954 to 1962, collapsing the Fourth French Republic as a consequence of their struggle.

As I mentioned in my initial post on Algeria, the U.S. and France both attempted to steer them into counterinsurgency activities against the various Islamist groups operating in North Africa, which they declined. The Algerians did permit French aircraft to cross their territory, and they’ve had a rare internal problem because of this:

British Petroleum Facility In Algeria Attacked

A militant group (Katibat Moulathamine) claimed responsibility for the rare attack on one of oil-rich Algeria’s energy facilities, saying it came in revenge for the North African nation’s support for France’s military operation against al-Qaida-linked rebels in neighboring Mali. The militants said they were holding 41 foreigners from the energy complex, including seven Americans.

Notice that I retitled the Washington post article, removing “the A word”. This is the first I’ve ever heard of Katibat Moulathamine, which translates to the Masked Brigade. Even though this U.N. report indicates the group’s leader is tied to al-Qaeda, the name has become a catch-all for Islamist groups, and I am going to resist using it on principle. I have seen a couple of instances where local Islamist groups, relatively mild, homegrown efforts at self determination, have been smeared with the al-Qaeda label. Things are a bit more nuanced that Americans are willing to absorb, and our collective ignorance is leading to bad policy choices.

So there’s a map and a complex, rapidly evolving policy problem. More will be revealed tomorrow, whether we are ready or not.

Mali & Pakistan

West Africa Taureg Mali Niger

Facing the French, Mali Rebels Dig In and Blend In (NYT)

Using advanced attack planes and sophisticated military helicopters, the French campaign has forced the Islamists from important northern towns like Gao and Douentza. But residents there say that while the insurgents suffered losses, many of them had simply gone into the nearby bush.

Mali conflict: UN backs France’s military intervention

The force will be deployed under UN Security Council resolution 2085, which was passed in December and allows for a 3,000-strong African-led mission to intervene in Mali later this year in the absence of any negotiated solution.


Kashmir Administration

NightWatch January 14th, 2013

India-Pakistan: Update. On Wednesday, Pakistan blamed Indian troops for killing one of its soldiers along the disputed Kashmir border. Details of the ceasefire violation are not available. This is the fourth incident in 10 days.

Pakistan: Pakistan is coping with three major internal political crises and one foreign crisis. Any one of these could prevent the first ever transfer of power in March 2013 between successive constitutional, civilian, elected governments in the history of Pakistan.

Things are popping all over, I’ve seen that there is more trouble over the ethnically mixed Iraqi city of Kirkuk, but I have even had a chance to scan those articles. Concurrent with the map collecting I have been doing I’ve also been looking for good news sources. The ones I am paying attention to at the moment are:

Stratfor – irregular, low volume email updates, often promo offers. I keep this because they occasionally pop out a real gem, such as Avoiding The Wars That Never End. This particular piece addresses how the U.S. view of its global role has evolved over the last hundred years.

KGS NightWatch – a terse, text only nightly update, this newsletter has an excellent reputation. The authors presume a very high level of situational awareness and coverage here precedes the mainstream news anywhere from days to weeks. This isn’t for beginners or occasional readers, but it’s important if you want to stay on top of things.

Foreign Policy magazine gets panned for some aspects of its coverage, which are closer to People magazine than the ponderous, academic style of Foreign Affairs. I happen to find this useful, as some situations can only be explained by knowing the personalities involved. They provide daily mainstream news summaries with commentary, covering the Mideast, AfPak, National Security, and Democracy Lab, which focuses on things like Arab Spring and the heat building for Arab monarchies in 2013.

I am also reading Progressive Congress News: National Security. Similar to NightWatch, this hits a specific niche – Congressional staffers responsible for foreign policy. There isn’t any breaking news in here, this will contain policy prescriptions for well understood (or at least well characterized) problems.

The long term goal here is simple. Neoconservative views have plunged the United States into a losing strategy in our war of necessity in Afghanistan, and we had a miserable adventure in Iraq. We are just beginning to come to grips with the harm they have done to our long term prospects, and this is happening at a time when there are many new conflicts brewing. If we don’t stand over these policy issues we’ll find ourselves in another long conflict that is not in our interests.

Mali Is Neither Afghanistan Nor Somalia

Afghanistan Topography

Afghanistan is the size of Texas and half the area is above 5,000′. Opium poppies are a major cash crop and the terrain consumes any empire that makes the mistake of wandering into this land.

Somalia Topography

Somalia is also the size of Texas but at 1,800 miles its coastline is longer than that of all the U.S. states on the Gulf of Mexico. The largest cash crop here seems to be pirates.

Mali Topography

Mali is about the size of Aghanistan and Somalia combined. There isn’t an easily transportable cash crop like the Afghan opium, there isn’t a busy shipping lane in the area like the Gulf of Aden.

Mali Land

The unrecognized state of Azawad is the area north of the thin blue line on the map, which is the Niger river. This is the Sahara, fairly flat and almost devoid of vegetation.

Mali Population

The area is almost devoid of people as well. Azawad has about the same geographic area as Texas, but it has fewer people than the city of San Antonio.

There isn’t anything to grow or mine, there aren’t any trade routes to pillage. There aren’t any mountain hideouts, there isn’t even a forest canopy to conceal comings and goings, and the population is tiny. Mali’s breakdown is a problem in the country itself, for its immediate neighbors, and for the region in general, but it lacks any of the features required to make it as much of a headache as Somalia or Afghanistan.

Mali Melting Down, Niger Prepares

West Africa Taureg Mali Niger

The Taureg people have a similar situation to that faced by the Kurds – they have a large amount of territory and a distinct identity, but they are divided primarily between Mali, Niger, and Algeria, with smaller contingents in Libya and Burkina Faso.

Taureg freedom fighters in Mali unilaterally declared the independence of Azawad in the spring of 2012. The name translates to the land of “transhumance”, or seasonal herding. The portion of rebellious north Mali not under ethnic Taureg control is the origin of Ansar Dine, which means “defenders of faith”. Confusingly, there was a Sufi movement of the same name in southern Mali, and it was opposed to the imposition of the current organization’s brand of repressive Sharia.

The French government took unilateral action against the northern rebels, who threaten to topple the government, which is based in the south. Mali was a French colony and some six thousand French citizens live there. Their initial effort involved airstrikes using Mirage fighters and the Africa Union is asking NATO to assist their planned peacekeeping operation.

Canada is contributing by training troops in Niger, another nation with a large Taureg population. There has not been any talk of trouble there due to conflict between the Taureg and the government, this seems to be about the potential for Mali’s troubles to spill over into Niger.

I went looking for more information on Algeria’s contribution and I found this article from 1/4/2013: Ansar Dine Revokes Pledge To End Mali Hostilities.

Under pressure from Burkina Faso and Algeria, Ansar Dine has also announced it no longer wants to impose sharia across Mali, saying it will limit itself to applying the strict Islamic law in territory under its control.

Algeria is the northern end of Taureg territory, Burkina Faso is the south. Ansar Dine faces disapproval from every direction.

The figures involved in the conflict are eye opening to a western reader. Mali is roughly the size of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas combined, with a population of just fifteen million. The government is so resource constrained, disorganized, and delegitimized that a group of a thousand motivated fighters is a serious concern for the current administration.

The illegitimacy and low inertia of the governments in this region make toppling them simple, but peacekeeping efforts are one or two orders of magnitude harder. Mali isn’t the next Somalia – no coast. Mali isn’t the next Afghanistan – no mountains. Even so, I think a peacekeeping force in the area would protect the major cities in the south and surpress the activities of Ansar Dine in the north, rather than trying to outright remove them.

I wish I could say this is going to work to settle the region, but I think climate and the global economy are the driving factors here. Drought makes things harder in the region, economic contraction makes the already remote area even less interesting to troubled western governments.

Libya Breaking Up Just As Sudan Did?

I saw Battle Of Control For Southern Libya this morning and I went digging. Recall that Sudan: Africa’s Yugoslavia? provided background on the breakup of Sudan, and in Nightwatch: Syria, Jordan & Mali briefly described the north/south split in Mali.

I found a high quality map of African ethnic groups and cropped the area of interest from it.

Africa Ethnic Groups

Libya Toubou Ethnic Group

And then I found a Libya specific map, which disagreed a bit on the extent of inhabited areas in southern Libya. White in the crop from the larger map indicates the area is uninhabited.

Libya Ethnic Groups

Then I found the oil map. This seems to me to be a bright spot – the Toubou were marginalized under the Gadaffi regime so they have neither a geographic claim on Libyan oil nor would it seem they’d have any expectation of benefit from it. The nature of the situation would seem to indicate that oil revenue was used to make their lives harder.

Libya Oil Map

Starting with Nigeria and Mali in the west and ending with Sudan and Somalia in the east, Africa is in chaos as the old dividing line between Arab Muslim Norther Africa and black animist or Christian Southern Africa.

The colonial lines on the map, created only a hundred years ago, are also becoming blurred, as both U.S. military power and European development funds dry up due to a variety of factors. The ethno-linguistic map above may be a better guide to understanding happenings in Africa than the formal lines on the map, which have been shifting and blurring since European colonialism’s peak a century ago.

Africa Partition-1885-1914

NightWatch: Syria, Jordan & Mali

I recently asked for alternatives to Stratfor and someone promptly suggested NightWatch. I didn’t like the text format and only got it switched to HTML yesterday.

The NightWatch for 15 Nov 2012 has information on Syria, Jordan, and Mali that interested me.

The Syrian government’s legitimacy is declining. France started the ball rolling and now Turkey has recognized the opposition as the country’s legitimate government. The French have a history in the region of derailing conflict through clever diplomacy, engaging the U.S. and defusing tension. Turkey has a refugee problem and accidental cross border artillery strikes have escalated their responses. The downfall of Assad has been inevitable for a while, but this troubles Iran, who see the Alawite Syrian minority as natural allies. The Russians’ only Mediterranean naval base is in Tartus and its loss would bottleneck them behind the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles

Jordan has been quietly skidding towards trouble for a while. I hear stories of pay cuts and a stock exchange where valuations and volume both cratered a year ago and have not recovered. Lacking any oil of their own, fuel subsidy cuts triggered economic protests, which the police foolishly chose to recast as challenges to authority. Roughly 50% of the population of five million are counted as Palestinian, which leads to some curious Google results for the country name.

Mali is a disaster in the making. The country split into north and south roughly along the natural divide of the Niger river. The Taureg people of the north have long sought an independent state, a move that is deeply unpopular with neighboring countries, all of whom have their own restive Taureg minorities. The native Ansar Dine (defenders of faith) are said to have been partially hijacked by al Queda in the Islamic Maghreb, but this is based on a handful of kinship connections between leaders in the two groups.

Various western sources have described the Toureg’s desire to create the state of Azawad as a path to the next Somalia or Afghanistan. This is an incorrect assessment – north Mali is the middle of nowhere, not the busy coast of the Horn of Africa, and they don’t have mountains for hiding both fighters and opium poppy fields. Large groups of fighters moving in the flats of the Toumbouctou province have been easy prey for Mauritanian helicopter gunships.

As a rule, information on Mali is sketchy and conflicting. Even the well connected locals I know who live in the capital of Djenne are puzzled by what is happening in the north and what the changes mean for the south.