Terms of Engagement

Sit this One Out

Sit this One Out

Something ugly is happening in the Sahel, the vast stretch of desert in the Western Sahara. In March, an Islamist group known as Ansar Dine, fighting alongside Tuareg insurgents, ousted the hapless Malian army from the northern half of the country — the desert half — and proclaimed the independent state of Azawad. Now, Ansar Dine has imposed the same medieval version of Sharia law practiced by al-Shabaab in Somalia, or the Taliban during their rule over Afghanistan. "Women are now forced to wear full, face-covering veils," according to one recent account. "Music is banned from the radio. Cigarettes are snatched from the mouths of pedestrians." An Ansar Dine spokesman described al Qaeda as "our Islamic brothers."

So should America start worrying about yet another haven for Islamist terrorists? Intelligence officials have been speculating for years about links between Sahelian tribes and the group known as al Qaeda in the Maghreb, or AQIM. Azawad looks like the realization of their worst nightmares. AQIM could treat Azawad as a host site, just as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has done with southern Yemen. And with the recent killing of Abu Yahya al-Libi, al Qaeda’s No. 2, American officials have begun to think that the locus of jihadi activity may increasingly shift away from the Afghan-Pakistani border to the Persian Gulf and to North Africa. Azawad, in short, could be the next destination for the armed drones which have become the Obama administration’s weapon of choice in the war on terror.

This would be a terrible idea. Mali isn’t Yemen, and Ansar Dine isn’t AQAP. Iyad Ag Ghali, the Ansar chief, is a Tuareg leader who, along with others, adopted a harsh, South Asian version of Islam in the mid-1990s; Ansar Dine itself is an indigenous movement which seeks to impose a fundamentalist vision of Islam on Mali — but only on Mali. A 2007 academic study of the group concludes that they "have done everything in their power to make it clear that their fight is not a part of a worldwide jihad." One European NGO official who has held talks with the group says that Ansar leaders "have a more Tuareg-y feel than an AQIM-y feel." Ansar, he says, is essentially an Islamicized local insurgency.

What’s more, Ansar is only half the story in northern Mali. The group has joined forces with a Tuareg movement, known as the MNLA, which has been fighting the government in Bamako for decades. The MNLA is a secular organization, which in the past has sought greater autonomy for the region and a larger role for Tuaregs in the national government. And the two groups are not getting along very well. After announcing an agreement to form a joint government, the MNLA and Ansar have had a falling out over Ansar’s demand for Sharia law, as well as the MNLA’s insistence that Ansar distance itself from AQIM.

What is happening in northern Mali right now is fundamentally about Mali. The Tuaregs rose up against the central government in 1996 and 2006. Then they rose up again this year. They succeeded this time for two reasons: first, because in March a military junta overthrew Mali’s democratically elected government, leaving the country in even greater shambles than usual; and second, because Tuareg rebels based in Libya returned home after Moammar al-Qaddafi was overthrown, and brought heavy weapons with them. 

This is a familiar story not only in Mali but across Africa: Either a feeble central government neglects the periphery, or an authoritarian government oppresses it. Ultimately, residents of the hinterland take up arms to support their claims. In recent years, this dynamic has played out in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Ivory Coast, among other places. In an e-mail exchange, Ibrahim Ag Youssef, a Tuareg activist (and former U.N. consultant) who lives in Timbuktu, the capital of the north, insisted that "the Tuareg are not fascinated with ‘independence,’" but have lost faith in the central government’s promises of more equal treatment. "A new sound basis," he wrote, "is needed to rebuild trust and the willingness to live together."

At the same time, it’s a complicated version of that story. There are in fact three actors in the desert: the MNLA, Ansar Dine, and AQIM. The MNLA plainly rejects al Qaeda, but Ansar’s relationship is murkier. AQIM, which has earned millions of dollars through kidnapping, may be bankrolling the Malian group. One intelligence official I spoke to said that AQIM’s numbers haven’t grown in recent years, and the group is not known to have launched or planned attacks beyond its own territory, as AQAP has — but, of course, that could change if the group could operate from a fixed territorial base.

Nevertheless, the breakaway state poses a fundamentally political problem which requires a political solution. The trick is to accommodate legitimate demands without accepting the fait accompli which led to the declaration of Azawad. The barely functioning government in Bamako is in no condition to take on the insurgents, or even to negotiate with them. Intriguingly, Mali’s neighbors have taken the lead in trying to sort out the mess. ECOWAS, the West African regional organization, imposed severe sanctions on Mali in order to force the junta to step down, leading to the establishment of a very rickety interim government. Now ECOWAS is trying to deal with the rebels. Regional leaders agreed to seek negotiations with them while insisting on two red lines: Sharia could not be imposed by force, and a separate state could not be established through non-constitutional means. This seems like exactly the right framework, and argues growing sophistication on the part of this sub-regional body.

ECOWAS views secession about as gravely as the United States views terrorism, and the region is now buzzing with diplomatic activity. There is talk of dispatching a small force to Bamako to stabilize the government. Djibril Bassolé, the foreign minister of Burkina Faso, is seeking to convene the states with Tuareg populations — Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Libya, Mali, and Mauritania — to initiate discussions with Ansar Dine and the MNLA. If efforts fail, as seem likely, ECOWAS plans to ask the African Union to go to the U.N. Security Council later this month to seek a resolution authorizing coercive measures, and even an intervening force. It all sounds very impressive, but this is one fait accompli that will be very hard to reverse. Unless the MNLA and Ansar Dine "rip each other apart," as the European NGO official puts it, "they’ll be incredibly hard to dislodge."

So far, the Obama administration has steered clear of the conflict. The Pentagon is considering a request from ECOWAS for a military planner to help figure out what kind of force might be required, and what sort of mandate it would need. Otherwise, the administration’s efforts are focused on bolstering the interim government, keeping pressure on the military junta and its supporters, and putting postponed elections back on track. U.S. Special Forces teams operating out of the military base in Djibouti continue to track AQIM, and to assist local militaries (though not the preoccupied Malians just now). The administration seems content to let the neighbors take the lead — and rightly so. There’s not a great deal Washington can do to shape events in northern Mali.

When you have the wonder-hammer of drones, every problem will look like the nail of terrorism. John Brennan, Obama’s counterterrorism chief, has become America’s diplomatic face in Yemen, visiting regularly and dealing with the broad issues normally the province of the State Department. But Yemen is the kind of problem that can’t be solved without drones (though it also can’t be solved only with drones). We do not need to have the dronester-in-chief expand his portfolio to North Africa. It’s in the U.S. interest to help put Mali back together. But that’s a job for diplomats.