Author’s note: “They’re Still At War” will be a multi-part series dealing with underreported or fully ignored low- to medium-intensity conflicts around the world. Over the next few weeks, we’ll cover countries such as Central African Republic, Congo, Yemen, and others. The first part deals with Mali.
France’s military intervention in Mali has been mostly over for more than a year now, and an elected government now sits in parliament—remnants of the April 2012 coup tossed under the rug. However, since French combat forces gave way to the current 9000-strong United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), war has continued raging in the desert north of the country with no signs of peace on the horizon.
The current conflict originates from the 2012 Tuareg rebellion, the fourth one since Mali’s independence in 1960. Territorial sovereignty of northern Mali has been a persistent claim made by Tuaregs over the past few decades—a surprising wish for a predominantly nomadic people. Azawad—the name Tuareg separatists gave to the 800,000-square kilometer, mostly desert-covered territory—inspired northern Mali’s main Tuareg insurgent group’s name—the MNLA (Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad).
The MNLA spearheaded the 2012 uprising, crushing an under-equipped, under-trained, low-morale Malian military. The military was also hampered by a coup staged by an army officer, Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, in response to then-President Amadou Toumani Touré’s perceived powerlessness and unwillingness to solve the issue. The ensuing political and military chaos in Mali allowed the MNLA to conquer and occupy all of northern Mali’s main cities—Gao, Timbuktu, Kidal. They seemed unstoppable. They outgunned the Malian military with heavy weaponry and vehicles stolen from the fallen Gaddafi regime’s arsenal.
Then came a trifecta of terror. Tuareg dissident and religious radical Iyad ag Ali, an emblematic figure of the Tuareg independence movement, formed Ansar Dine—Arabic for “Defenders of the Faith.” They immediately formed an alliance with The Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghbreb (AQIM), the latter infamously known for their kidnapping-for-profit racket.
They ousted the MNLA in all three main northern Malian cities during the summer of 2012, establishing a brutal, Sharia-inspired regime in a society known for their generally relaxed approach to religious practice (although Islam was already the dominant religion in the region, with 94 percent of Malians declaring themselves Muslims).
When I covered the conflict in 2013 as France invaded the country to assist the Malian military, war was almost upstaged by the Africa Cup. I remember witnessing Malians in the war-torn village of Diabaly stuck in front of their TVs watching football while the dust and the smoke from battle still engulfed the place, even when the muezzin called them for prayer. Covering women and enforcing amputations for theft were foreign to Malians. Their future looked grim before France launched Operation Serval, which forced all three armed groups to retreat farther north into the Ifoghas mountains lining the Mali-Algeria border.
Victory seemed definite against the jihadists, and Mali elected a new, democratically elected government in July, 2014.
Yet, the conflict isn’t over.
In spite of earlier talks, the new government still refuses to negotiate with separatist Tuaregs, which the MNLA considers an act of “belligerence” against them as they still control the surroundings of the northern city of Kidal.
Another pro-independence body was born out of the war, the High Council for the Unity of Azawad, which stems from a feud within Ansar Dine. Their faction seceded from the Islamist group over a dispute about political objectives, as Ansar Dine cares less about territory than religion. Yet, none of them are considered legitimate representatives at the table of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
And as always, the insidious threat from Islamic extremists still looms, with groups such as AQIM still fighting MINUSMA troops, Malian army units, and Tuareg militias. While the Islamic State attempts to spread its influence outside Syria and Iraq, AQIM had rejected their claim to the caliphate and, in July 2014, reaffirmed their allegiance to al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri. But while greatly divided, they still carry out suicide attacks and IEDs remain a common occurrence around Gao and Timbuktu, claiming civilian lives in the process.
So far, MINUSMA has been unable to maintain peace in Mali as troops might be pulled out by June 30, 2015. Another mission with an expiration date, success notwithstanding.
This article previously published by SOFREP 01.22.15
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