By Giovanni Castaldo
When France decided to intervene in the conflict that for six months has pitted the self-declared independent Islamic Republic of Azawad in northern Mali against Mali’s central government, the international community was relieved. On Thursday, January 18th , European foreign ministers were summoned to Brussels to agree on the terms of collective support for the French operation. Earlier, the U.N. Security Council expressed its approval of France’s military intervention. On the previous Sunday, Mali and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) reached an agreement on the deployment of an African military force to help liberate northern Mali from armed Islamist groups. In France, public opinion strongly backs President Hollande’s enterprise in spite of his low approval rating, which has dipped as low as 36 percent. Indeed, the risk of the rise of an Al Qaeda supported state so close to Europe seems to justify prompt, strong international military involvement. But was such a conflict really inevitable? The ignored story of the Tuaregs, a nomadic Berber people that inhabit the Saharan interior in North Africa, and their discrimination in Mali and other North African nations veils a lack of international awareness, as well as inadequate international socio-political forecasting in this region of the world.
When the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad), the new Tuareg rebel group, started successfully attacking northeastern Mali in January, the Malian press called the rebels “armed bandits”, “drug traffickers”, “AQIM’s collaborators” (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and “Gaddafi mercenaries”. International reports relied mainly on Malian army sources, thus creating a superficial opposition toward the rebels. When the secular rebel group of Saharan Tuareg tribesmen agreed to merge with the Al Qaeda-sponsored “Ansar Dine” in May, creating the Islamic Republic of Azawan, international opinion deepened its misjudgment even further.
After less than a month, though, the MNLA reversed its decision and started militarily opposing the ever-growing Ansar Dine. Tuaregs as a whole, in fact, opposed the Islamic radicalism and the sharia law that Ansar Dine had introduced. Indeed, the Islamic terror group made itself unpopular in the north by forcing everyone to obey strict Islamic lifestyle restrictions—no tobacco, alcohol, music, video, shaved men and unveiled women—and damaging some cultural sites judged unclean by the Sunni Islamic conservatives within Ansar Dine. There were a few anti-Ansar Dine demonstrations, but these were put down with gunfire and threats of more violence.
By the end of the conflict between the two rebel groups, the Tuareg-based independence movement had been smothered by the stronger Islamist push embodied by Ansar Dine. The international community might have more productively intervened at this stage by siding with the MNLA in the fight against Al Qaeda’s contamination, and then by trying to reach an internationally-supervised agreement between Mali and its Tuareg population of the north. But it preferred not to interfere, following a hands-off policy that has lasted for fifty years.
Indeed, the Tuareg revolt is not a recent phenomenon. A snapshot of its story reveals many missed opportunities for peaceful international intervention; as a result of these failures, many are now comparing Mali to Afghanistan. The Tuareg people started rising up against the central government in 1963, after Mali had only just won its independence from France, as a response to their independent nomadic culture being subdued by a new state ruled by black Africans living hundreds of miles away. The Malian government replied brutally. Northeast Mali became a no-go area ruled by martial law. Moreover, twenty years of extreme drought strained the population. The central government avoided any sort of aid, pushing the Tuareg people toward another outbreak. This outbreak, the second great Tuareg rebellion of 1990, ceased when Algeria brokered a peace treaty known as the National Pact of 1992, which granted some level of self-determination to the north. Because the clauses of this pact were never honored by the Malian government, another rebellion broke out in 2006, which was once again concluded with the mediation of Algeria and the reinstatement of the National Pact’s principles, including a tax regime meant to attract investments, greater recognition of the local Tamasheq language and culture, and greater autonomy. Once again, the implementation of this agreement stalled, and in 2012 everything kicked off again.
Letting Algeria deal with the resolution of the quarrels between the Malian central government and the Tuaregs to the north was a terrible mistake by the international community. Algiers has always known that at the first sign of a successful uprising in Mali, its own Tuareg populations would inevitably begin to know their uncomfortable potential. Indeed, since the beginning of the conflict, Berbers in Algeria and Libya have been voicing their support for the MNLA’s action. Last year, when the MNLA approached the northern Malian town of Tessalit, Algeria sent in reinforcements to the Malian army camp close to the town. In doing so, the guarantor of the two peace agreements finally showed its real nature of partiality and selfishness.
If the international community had intervened in Algeria’s place, the Malian government would necessarily have had to accept an autonomous region in the north of the country and the issue would have been solved. Instead, the issue was never addressed and cells of AQIM started to emerge in the region, giving the government the opportunity to simplify the whole situation in the eyes of international observers. Although one of MNLA’s clearest aims is to get rid of AQIM, an organization which the rebels consider to be one of Mali’s most effective weapons in its fight against their cause, the secular Tuaregs were no longer distinguished from the extremist Islamists. As U.S. Embassy cables (via Wikileaks) have shown, the introduction of Islamic terrorists in northern Mali might have even been favored by the Malian government itself as a way of drowning the MNLA movement. Well, this strategy clearly came home to roost and now, starting with France, the whole world is facing a serious threat.
Today’s extreme intervention is therefore the consequence of the international community’s own mistakes in interpreting an entire area and its issues. Without having learnt even a single small thing from Iraq and Afghanistan, once again years of passivity and misjudgment have to be repaired with violence. Today, hope for a stable future in this region does not rest only in the expulsion of the AQIM from Mali and the defeat of Ansar Dine. It more importantly rests in international institutions’ commitment to pacify the region by granting the Tuareg area—under their protection—a modern form of autonomy. The infiltration of Al Qaeda will only really be challenged when this prolonged ethno-social conflict has been definitively pacified. Finally, a serious approach to the resolution of the conflict has to go through an examination of the Malian government’s actions. It’s not enough to kick the terrorists out of the country. It is just as important to understand what the terms of Mali’s connivance with the Islamic fringes were before their seizure of power in the north. After fifty years of disinterest toward the Tuareg issue and blinded by the spasmodic fight against terrorism, France and all its allies might indeed have decided to side with the wrong side.
Image by extremeboh