| Ander Nieuws week 4 / Midden-Oosten 2013 |
Islamist Tuareg fighters are masters of the hit-and-run guerilla tactics that suit conditions in the Sahara
16 January 2013
Fortunately for the French, there's been no sign of the surface-to-air missiles that the Salafist mujahideen in northern Mali are reported to have stolen from Libya. But taking control of the skies is one thing, winning a ground war and restoring peace is an altogether different prospect.
The French government claim they are merely softening up the territory for military intervention led by the Malian army and a coalition of regional Ecowas forces. What they have failed to mention is that the Malian army hasn't won a military encounter against Tuareg rebels in the north since the early 1960s, at least not without the help of pro-government Tuareg and Arab militias who know the terrain. Unfortunately, these militias won't be on hand to help this time round - not in the short term at least.
The north of Mali is as alien to the average soldier from southern Mali as the Alaskan tundra is to a citizen of Massachusetts or Manchester. That sense of alienation will be felt even more keenly by troops from Nigeria, Senegal, Benin and Ivory Coast, used to jungle and savannah bush warfare, when they finally roll onto the vast treeless plains of the southern Sahara.
This is the land where the local Tuareg or Arab in his souped-up turbo 4x4 is king. Iyad Ag Ghali, the Tuareg leader of the Salafist Ansar Dine militia, is a master of the kind of hit-and-run guerrilla warfare that suits the desert conditions and the sheer size of territory, roughly equal to that of Spain. His mujahideen showed their verve last Sunday by capturing the small town of Diabaly, north of Mopti, with a lightening strike that originated over the border in Mauritania. This ability to crisscross borders is another important aspect of the Islamists' Houdini-esque style of combat.
Even if the Malian and Ecowas troops manage to march in and recapture most of the major cities in the north, they're likely to find their enemy strangely invisible. The local youth who have been fighting for one or other of the Islamist katibat or cells will no doubt stash their Kalashnikovs, khaki robes and ammo pouches and don the uniform of the local inhabitants; a civilian robe and a turban that covers the head and face, leaving only the eyes exposed. A junior army officer from Lagos, Cotonou or even Bamako will find it very hard to tell the Islamist apart from the innocent native city-dweller or nomad. Local informants will offer their services and summary executions and brutality against both the guilty and the innocent will ensue. Anger against "white" northerners - Tuareg, Arab and Fulani - that has been brewing among southern black Malians and the darker skinned northerners such as the Songhoi is likely to spill over into racial and ethnic violence. Vigilante groups, such as the feared Songhoi militia, the Ganda Izo, are ready to roar into action with their machetes and petrol cans. Human rights organisations will have to work overtime.
The secular Tuareg nationalist movement, the MNLA, are currently playing the good guys and offering their services and local knowledge to the international community in the fight to rid northern Mali of their Islamist adversaries. This offer however is conditional on the autonomy, if not complete independence of the northern two thirds of the country, a condition which Mali is unlikely to accept. Moreover, the struggle between the MNLA and the Tuareg-dominated Ansar Dine militia will be a fratricidal one, pitting Tuareg against Tuareg, often within the same family or clan.
The Algerian and Mauritanian leaders of the Islamist groups who currently control the north of the country will simply vanish into the desert, possibly to live and fight another day. The Tuareg, discredited by an association with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and other jihadist groups that only a small handful of their leaders ever really wanted, will be back where they were before the great rebellion of the early 1990s; a marginalised, harassed and vilified people living under military occupation and watching their nomadic lifestyle and culture slowly disappear.
The question that France and international community need to answer is not how they can bomb Islamist columns and arms dumps without killing too many civilians, or how they can best support the Malian army and Ecowas in their bid to retake the north, but how they can help to bring about a stable, functioning and harmonious Mali to which all its people, northerners and southerners, feel they belong.
The joy expressed at the arrival of French fighter jets and paratroopers by most Malians in the south of the country and by a large tranche of the bruised and battered people of the north, who have been groaning under a doctrinaire Salafist regime since last April, is completely understandable. And perhaps the Islamist advance southwards towards Mopti had to be stopped in its tracks, threatening as it did the most strategic airport in the centre of the country, as well as the capital Bamako further south. But returning Mali to the way it was before the Tuareg uprising in January 2012 is simply not an option. The Tuareg "question", the endemic corruption, the collusion between Mali's security apparatus and shady criminal and Islamist elements in the north, the lack of democratic accountability, the breakdown of law and order; all of these issues were rampant back in 2011 and they remain far from being resolved.
France's intervention may well serve to halt and stabilise the situation, but a solution seems as far away as ever.
© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited
| Ander Nieuws week 4 / Midden-Oosten 2013 |