A beginner’s guide to what is happening in Mali

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A beginner’s guide to what is happening in Mali

It occurs to me that my previous post about Mali may fall on deaf ears if no one knows the context and recent history.  So, let me back up and provide a bit of a primer.

Mali is a former French colony in West Africa, which struggled a bit since its independence in 1960.  It’s made up of five major ethnic groups, and a host of smaller ones.  French is still the official language and the country is 90 percent Muslim in religious outlook.  But even within that 90 percent there are VAST differences in their religious views that have brought Mali to the fore in terms of international relations.

From 1960 through 1991 Mali was a traditional African dictatorship.  But in 1991 a military coup took place, and democratic measures were put in place, including a Presidency limited by constitutional restrictions.  The first two Presidential elections (each constituting five years) were won by a gentleman named Alpha Konore.  A former teacher, Konore was also initially a Marxist-Leninist, but moderated his views considerably.  By most accounts he governed fairly well considering the circumstances, although his administration was plagued by the corruption that was the hallmark of countries in that region.  After his second term he stepped down (per their American-like constitutional limitation on 2 terms) and “was succeeded by Amadou TOURE, who was elected to a second term in 2007 elections that were widely judged to be free and fair.”  (From the CIA fact book.)

Flash forward to two years ago:

Malian returnees from Libya in 2011 exacerbated tensions in northern Mali and Tuareg ethnic militias started a rebellion in January 2012. Low-mid level soldiers, frustrated with the poor handling of the rebellion overthrew TOURE on 22 March. Coup leader Capt. Amadou Haya SANOGO and his junta under the mediation of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) returned power to a civilian administration in April with the appointment of interim President Dioncounda TRAORE.

The problem with this is that the US actually trained some of the troops that overthrew the Government.  As General Ham of AFRICOM made clear a few days ago:

“We have had a U.S. training effort with the Malian armed forces for some number of years,” he said. “Some of that has occurred in Mali, and some of that was Malian officers coming to the U.S. for training, to include, Captain [Amadou] Sanogo, who led the military coup which overthrew the constitutionally-elected government.”

“[This is] very worrisome for us,” Ham said. “So we looked at that, and we asked ourselves these questions: First of all, did we miss the signs that this was happening? And was there anything that we did in our training that could have been done differently, perhaps, and have caused a different outcome?”

The general said he believes the answer is “a little bit of both.”

Now, avoid the temptation of falling into the belief that the “coup” leaders are the “bad guys” necessarily.  There seems to have been some legitimacy to their concerns, which is what we are seeing now.  The Taureg minority in the north is heavily influenced by the Al Qaeda affiliated groups which spread south out of Libya. 

When I was in Senegal I heard a lot about Mali from my interpreter and guide, who talked to me about what was going on.  Mali has its own version of a sort of “Africanized” Islamic beliefs, venerating some of its own scholars and being generally tolerant of other religions.  Much like in Senegal, Mali wasn’t the sort of hard-line Islam that you might be imagining.   Until the bad guys started showing up destroying things.

This article from December appearing in Magharebia makes clear the kind of nonsense they are facing there:

Ansar al-Din, the dominant movement in Timbuktu, demolished about 333 mausoleums, including 18 mausoleums classified as part of UNESCO's World Heritage Site, according to Sahara Media....

For his part, Attay Ag Elweli, a youth from Timbuktu, told Magharebia that the demolition was carried out by the person nicknamed Abu al-Walid, who commands the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice group, known historically as al-Hisbah.

One can guess from the name “Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice group” that these guys mean business.  And their leader doesn’t disappoint in that regard:

Yet al-Walid himself tried to justify the shrine's destruction by declaring to the Sahara Media that his Islamist group was previously unaware of the mausoleums.

"These shrines are a manifestation of unbelief and sorcery, a place of prayers and blessing without God. They are also too high above the ground, at a height which we are ordered to eliminate," he said.

According to his justification, his group "confirmed the presence of the domes and the effects of unbelief, and they decided to flatten them in order to make them similar to the rest of the graves of Muslims in response to the command of the Prophet, peace be upon Him."

By early January, France had seen enough, and came to the aid of its Malian allies.  You can watch this to get a feel for what was going on.



Then, last week, the US and Britain started announcing the ways they would aid the effort.  The US announced that:

The U.S. military is planning a new drone base in Africa that would expand its surveillance of al-Qaeda fighters and other militants in northern Mali, a development that would escalate American involvement in a fast-spreading conflict.

Two Obama administration officials said military planners are eyeing the West African country of Niger as a base for unarmed Predator drones, which would greatly boost U.S. spy missions in the region.

The British came out even more aggressively:

Britain is prepared to take the risk of sending a "sizeable amount" of troops to Mali and neighbouring West African countries as David Cameron offers strong support to France in its operation to drive Islamist militants from its former colony.

As news emerged that insurgents retreating from Timbuktu had set fire to a library containing thousands of priceless historic manuscripts, Downing Street said the prime minister told François Hollande on Sunday night Britain was "keen" to provide further military assistance to France.

Cameron despatched Sir Kim Darroch, his national security adviser, to Paris on Monday to discuss what help Britain could provide. Government sources said decisions on troop deployments were expected to be made in the coming days as France confirms its exact requirements. One source said that Britain could easily dispatch 200 troops if France requested such a number.

This brings us up to yesterday…..when France and Mali re-took Timbuktu, and the residents made clear how little they want al-Walid’s guys to return:

As French and Malian troops routed Islamist militants from the northern Malian towns of Gao and Timbuktu, residents’ relief and elation appeared to give way on Tuesday to some measure of reprisal and frustration.

In Gao, groups of residents were reported hunting down suspected fighters who had not fled ahead of the French-Malian military forces who took control of the town over the weekend. Other residents expressed concern that Gao remained unsafe and was acutely short of food and fuel after a prolonged isolation.

It wasn’t pretty apparently:

Reporters and photographers in Timbuktu, the storied desert oasis farther north that the French-Malian forces secured on Monday, saw looters pillaging shops and other businesses, with some saying the merchants were mainly Arabs, Mauritanians and Algerians who had supported the Islamist radicals who summarily executed, stoned and mutilated people they suspected of being nonbelievers during their 10-month occupation.

Alex Crawford, a television correspondent for Britain’s Sky News, said, “This is months and months of frustration and repression finally erupting.”

Here’s a good CNN video piece on the situation as well:

Pretty fast moving, and I suspect that we’ll see more on this developing, but I thought you should know the context of what is going on.

Like I said, when I was in Senegal, back in September, this was a major topic of conversation.  The Senegalese Commando’s (CoFuMaCo) that I talked to almost seemed eager to get into the fight with the hard-line Al-Qaeda guys.  I have no doubt that Senegal will be fine, but I know significantly less about the Malian military.  Nonetheless, the allies (Mali, US, France, Britain) obviously have to walk a pretty tight line to make sure this doesn’t turn south on us.  But from what I am reading, the vast majority of Malians are happy with the intervention of its former colonial masters.

(h/t on some of this to Hot Air.)

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.