Is France Prepared to Fight in a Hostile Environment?

Is France Prepared to Fight in a Hostile Environment?

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From France 24:

Demonstrators stormed an airport runway in northern Mali on Monday to protest against arrests by French forces of people suspected of links to Islamist militants who operate in the region, local officials and witnesses said.

Security forces fired warning shots and teargas to deter the mostly female protesters in the town of Kidal who also ransacked and set fire to airport facilities, said a local official, witnesses and the U.N. mission in Mali, MINUSMA.

The protests appear to mark a deterioration in relations between foreign forces and the local community in Kidal, a town at the centre of a separatist movement and violence by Islamist militants, some of whom are linked to al Qaeda.

One person died and six were injured, said Ahmoudane Ag Ikmasse, who represents Kidal in the national assembly. Ikmasse said he was in the capital Bamako but was in contact with people in Kidal.

A doctor in Kidal’s health centre said two died from gunshot wounds.

When France started its military intervention in January 2013, it was greeted as a liberator by southern Malians and parts of the northern population. But France has not been able to resolve the political conflicts within Malian society and instead concentrated on hunting down members of terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

France’s strategy has been described as “permission to kill” suspects without any transparency why certain individuals were designated as targets. Unfortunately for the French forces, AQIM’s and other terrorist organizational structures overlap considerably with purely criminal endeavors, primarily large-scale smuggling of narcotics and contraband within the wider region. Smuggling in turn, while also a contributor to AQIM’s finances, is widely accepted among the local population as a normal way to make a living, with few other economic opportunities available.

Under these circumstances, it is almost assured that France’s aggressive anti-terrorism operation results in a lot of people perceived as innocent either in body bags or in prisoners after pre-dawn raids.  With political tensions complicating the picture, France’s position vis à vis the local population will become ever more precarious and other international forces, like the U.N. and E.U. missions, are liable to become swept up in the anti-French sentiment.

So if France so far wasn’t even able to limit the activities of isolated groups like AQIM, how will the international presence fare if large parts of the population especially in northern Mali turn hostile?

Little hope for a peaceful solution in North Mali

Tuareg rebels fighting for an independent Azawad. Photo CC-BY from Flickr user Magharebia.

Since my last post on Mali, a lot of things happened. The coup has officially ended (though it may not be over yet) and the situation in the North has … evolved, to put it mildly.

I will concentrate on developments in the North in this post. As Baz Lecocq has pointed out, we actually know little about what is happening in that region. News are sparse and to my knowledge only one journalist, Salima Tlemçani of the Algerian El Watan, is actually on the ground there. All other journalists and press agencies (me included) get their news from members of the various conflict parties, civilian eye witnesses and of course each other (head to my Twitter stream to get the latest).

In the beginning of the Tuareg rebellion, there were reasons for hoping that this would go over relatively peaceful. The Malian government under Touré was either unwilling or unable to resist the rebels, so not much blood was spilled in the first two months of the conflict. This ironically contributed to the coup against Touré, but the junta that took over from him was even less competent in the military quarter and the remaining army strongholds in the North collapsed virtually without a fight. The Tuareg rebels – by then it was clear that at least two groups of them existed which cooperated – quickly pushed the army out of all the “Azawad”.

But now things seem to start escalating. The MNLA and Ansar Dine – the two main Tuareg rebel factions in the North – are in an uneasy relationship. The MNLA is mostly described as secular and nationalistic, with an independent Azawad as its main goal. Ansar Dine in turn is a Salafist movement, which wants to introduce Sharia law to the whole of Mali, but is opposed to an independent Azawad.

Ansar Dine also seems to have taken AQIM into the boat, especially in the area around Timbuktu. Leaders of AQIM were seen in the city attending a meeting with the leadership of Ansar Dine. Meanwhile a splinter group of AQIM has appeared in Gao, where it has abducted eight Algerian diplomats from the local consulate.

On monday then reports began surfacing of a new militia, the FLNA. This seems to be a group mainly made up of ethnic Arabs from the Timbuktu area, who may want to use it as a vehicle to secure their economic interests (read: smuggling routes) against possible encroachment from the Tuareg rebels or the foreigners of AQIM.

Into this mix of current interests and agendas of course feeds as well a long history of grievances and unsettled scores, often stemming from the last Taureg insurrections. Apart from political and/or religious motivation, kinship ties and historical relations between ethnic/social groups play an important role.

In this complex situation, large scale violence between the various armed groups can easily erupt and will be hard to contain once it takes place. Some of the deadliest phases of the Tuareg rebellion in the 1990s did take place only after the conflict with the Malian state was over and the various rebel factions began fighting each other.

Even worse, the political elite in the South seems to be quite willing to attempt a military solution from their side as well. The AFP quoted Malian government and military officials saying that the Nigerian terror group Boko Haram had hundreds of fighters in Gao. This is of course very likely bullshit of the highest order and the AFP should be fined for repeating such abstruse claims without giving the necessary context.

But it shows that the institutions of Mali still bank on painting all Tuareg rebels as fanatic Islamists, thereby trying to delegitimize their demands and grievances and possibly hoping for military hope from Western countries terrified of a “Saharan Afghanistan”.

A military involvement of the Malian army (or any other army for that matter) would of course drastically increase the chances for large scale violence in the North, without giving much hope for a quick resolution. And in the face of the upcoming hunger crisis, it is probably time that matters most.

What do you think, how could a degeneration into large-scale violence in the North be avoided?

Tuareg uprising is now an “Islamist Rebellion”

Tuareg rebels. Al Jazeera photo.

The African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council met in Bamako on Tuesday to discuss (among other things) the armed uprising in Mali. Just that it isn’t any armed uprising anymore, its now an “Islamist rebellion”.

The ministers cited in the article put great emphasis on the involvement of a group called “Ansar Dine”, which demands that Sharia law is introduced in Mali. To the layperson, it may even look like Ansar Dine is the main faction inside the rebellion against the government. Oh, and “criminal groups” are also linked to the rebellion.

Now, there is of course involvement of Islamist and criminal groups on the rebellion. These groups even overlap to a certain extend. But the main rebel group (which has also the greatest military capacity) is still the MNLA.

This group has cooperated with Ansar Dine on numerous occasions. But it has also distanced itself quite radically from its Islamist demands. So far, there is little reason to suspect that the bulk of the rebels have a religious agenda.

So why does the AU put such an emphasis on Islamist involvement? My best guess is that they (and the government of Mali of course) are looking to delegitimize the political demands of the rebels, which are fed by generations of marginalization of the Tuareg community. Also, claiming to fight against Islamists has never hurt in getting military support from the USA.

I think this is a dangerous strategy. If it succeeds, the rebellion will be suppressed, just to return in a few years time (this has happened repeatedly in the past years). If it fails, it will stylize the Islamist elements of the rebellion as the most successful, making future support for their fundamentalist agenda much more likely. In every case, it closes the door for a negotiated settlement further. With a famine looming in Mali and 160.000 people already displaced by the fighting, this has disastrous consequences for many people on the ground.

The government of Mali should begin to accept the basic demands of the rebels as legitimate. It should take the claims of marginalization seriously and begin in ernest to work on a peaceful solution. Everything else is irresponsible.

 @arabist