August 16, 2012: Strategy Page
In northern Malu, the Islamic radical Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) have used their larger supplies of cash (from al Qaeda controlled drug smuggling and ransoms) to recruit men and teenagers from an increasingly desperate (for food and other goods) population. There are several Islamic radical groups in the north, with the local Ansari Dine nominally in charge. Al Qaeda wants to establish a terrorist haven in the area, but first the Islamic radicals have to gain a greater measure of control. That is proving difficult because the locals are resisting. In the last month there have been more demonstrations against Ansar Dine, which has been met by Islamic radicals using clubs and whips. Now the angry locals are trying to form armed militias to drive out the Islamic radicals. But the locals don't have weapons or the cash to buy them. The Islamic radicals don't have the manpower to occupy all the neighborhoods and villages where their increasingly angry local enemies might be. The thinly populated and largely desert north is becoming chaotic.
Then there are the Tuareg rebels. Two months ago the more numerous Tuareg tribal rebels (MNLA, Liberation Army of Azawad) were driven out of the major cities there by the Islamic radicals. Ansar Dine and MNLA used to be allies and drove the Mali army and police out of the thinly populated, largely desert northern two-thirds of the country four months ago. The Islamic radicals have more money and fanaticism, but the MNLA gunmen are still out there. The north is a patchwork of areas controlled by Islamic radicals, MNLA or local militias. The MNLA are disliked because of looting and general unruliness. While the Islamic radicals impose law and order, their strict lifestyle rules quickly dissipate any good will.
The northern city of Gao, one of the three major population centers, near the Niger border is one of the most unruly places for Ansari Dine. The Islamic radicals are faced with a growing armed opposition. If the fighting gets started here, it could turn very bloody.
In the last eight months a coup and a tribal rebellion in Mali have caused over 300,000 people to flee their homes. About two-thirds of the refugees are still in Mali. Most of the refugees are from the thinly populated northern two-thirds of the country. While the African state of Mali has a population of 15 million, less than two million live in the dry north. The region was very poor in the best of times, and the recent violence there has halted tourism (a major source of income, especially in Timbuktu) and the movement of many goods. Foreign aid, especially food is not arriving in sufficient quantities. Donor nations have been burned too often by local corruption (that sees most of the food aid stolen and then showing up in local markets). This part of the world is very corrupt and the food is not coming without assurances that the most needy will receive it. That is being negotiated, along with unofficial limits on how much can be stolen by armed locals.
The success of the Islamic radicals and Tuareg rebels in chasing the largely black African Mali army out of the north encouraged Ansar Dine to call for more Islamic radicals throughout the region to come join them. At this point, about a third of Ansar Dine fighters are foreigners. Ansar Dine also insisted on imposing Islamic law in the north and MNLA opposed that. This caused a split between the two groups two months ago, which devolved into fighting between the two groups.
The impact of the drug gangs (smuggling South American cocaine and local drugs north to Europe) cannot be underestimated. Local officials are easy to bribe and are not keen on wiping out the source of all their new-found wealth. This has led to resistance to Western (or any outside) intervention in northern Mali. Many local leaders blame the United States and the West for this mess. The reasoning is twisted, but it involves Western counter-terrorism efforts in Africa and the usual Western imperialism. No mention of corruption among African politicians. This is one of the causes of a military coup in Mali last March. The troops wanted their political leaders spend less time stealing and more time dealing with the growing unrest in the north.
The transitional government in Mali (another place where drug gangs bribed a lot of politicians) is having a difficult time arranging new elections. The corrupt politicians and unhappy population cannot agree on what the new government should be like. There is great popular anger at the corrupt and inept politicians, and the politicians are shifting blame as quickly as they can. Everyone says they want to reclaim the north, but there's no enthusiasm for letting foreigners (including the UN) do it, or getting organized so the more numerous southern Malians can do it. The West is leaning towards taking unilateral action, as the al Qaeda controlled north turns into another terrorist sanctuary.
In the south, several armed militias have formed for the purpose of regaining control of the north. So far it's all talk and bluster. More armed groups in the south is not a good thing, no matter what their intentions.
August 15, 2012: Army leaders (who are still in opposition, if not rebellion, to the government) threaten to fight any foreign troops entering southern (government controlled) Mali on their way to defeat the rebels in the north. ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) and the AU (African Union) have offered to organize a force of 3,300 peacekeepers (from Nigeria, Niger and Senegal) got that purpose, but the UN has been slow to sign off on this. The Mali army had 7,000 troops at the beginning of the year, but as many as half have deserted or been put out of action by northern rebels since then. The remainder are occupied guarding their bases and towns north of the Niger river that mark the boundary between government and rebel controlled Mali. Despite a host of political and logistical difficulties, ECOWAS and the UN are working out the details for sending in a peacekeeper (and peacemaking) force that will end Islamic control of the north. That force won't arrive until next month, at the earliest.
In southern Mali the government has recruited over a thousand young men and is training them for combat in the north. If the new Mali government can stabilize itself, then the UN is more inclined to authorize some international military aid to deal with the mess in the north.
August 11, 2012: The UN has called on the Mali military to stop interfering in politics. The leaders of the military refuse. The military coup of last March has still not been resolved, even though the coup leaders were forced to back off and allow new elections. ECOWAS and the UN do not want to fight the remaining Mali army mutineers as well as the rebels up north. But that may happen anyway.
August 8, 2012: The UN has called for sanctions against northern Mali rebel leaders. ECOWAS has been talking to Islamic radical leaders in the north, but has been unable to get assurances that the north would not turn into an Islamic terrorist sanctuary. Ansar Dine and other radical groups up north are willing to talk, but apparently only for the purpose of getting foreign aid for the hungry population they now preside over. By controlling the foreign aid, the restive population can be more easily controlled.