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Report: Could Mali Become the Next Afghanistan?
Matthew HamiltonJuly 13, 2012
The Tuareg Rebellion in Northern Mali has dramatically shifted the landscape of West Africa. The situation is that the Tuaregs have taken nearly two thirds of Mali and are claiming it as the independent state of Azawad. The Tuaregs are nomadic herdsmen and traders that have lived in the Sahara since antiquity. They comprise about 1 million persons organized into largely independent clans that live throughout Mali, Niger, Algeria, and Libya.
This is not the first attempt by the Tuaregs to establish an independent state. Tuaregs have fought four previous wars for independence in both Mali and Niger from 1916-1917, in the 1960’s, the 1990’s, and from 2007-2009. This time however, the Tuaregs have thus far been successful thanks in large part to the small arms from Qaddafi’s stockpiles that have flooded the region since the overthrow of the regime.
The United States and NATO are partially responsible for this situation as the involvement in the overthrow of Qaddafi directly led to the circumstances which precipitated the success of the Tuareg Rebellion.
African states are primarily interested in Mali retaking Azawad and/or finding a political settlement with the Tuaregs that will leave Mali's borders intact. Africa is constantly experiencing ethnic tensions and there is the fear that if the Tuaregs are able to build an independent state for themselves, ethnic groups throughout Africa might be encouraged to stage rebellions as well.
Further complicating the situation is that international Jihadists are gravitating to the region and are joining Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Ansar al-Dine. The situation can be described as being similar to Afghanistan in the 1990's, when the Taliban took control of most of Afghanistan but were soon after coopted by Al Qaeda. It is apparent however, that despite having fought side by side against Malian and Niger government forces, the Tuaregs and Jihadists do not share much love for each other. They both need each other at the moment, but the Tuaregs see the Jihadists as a threat to their way of life and their existence. Also, being Sufi, a moderate branch of Islam, the Tuaregs do not share the Jihadists’ vision of Islamic conquest. The major disagreement between the two groups stems from the Jihadists’ recruitment of Tuareg men into their ranks which is destroying the Tuareg clan structure and eroding the foundation for their society. There are also reports, yet to be confirmed, that Jihadists are using cocain to bait Tuaregs to join their cause.
West Africa is a major trafficking route through which South American narcotics are smuggled across the Atlantic, through states like Mali and Niger, and across the Sahara to the Mediterranean where they are then delivered to Europe. These trafficking routes will provide a highly lucrative source of income for Jihadist organizations like AQIM and Ansar al-Dine who could buy a nearly endless supply of weapons and supplies with the profits. Also, Jihadists now control four airstrips in Azawad which could make drug smuggling and resupplying much easier and expedient. There are reports that large sums of money are flowing to Jihadists West Africa from Gulf States like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and US General Carter Ham of US Africa Command recently claimed that there are links being formed between the Jihadists groups in Mali, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and Al-Shabaab in Somalia. The presence of increasing numbers of well-armed and well-funded Jihadists in West Africa presents a very serious threat to the safety and sovereignty of many states besides just Mali. States like Niger, Algeria, and Mauritania are at serious risk of being targeted by the Jihadists. There are also very serious human rights and religious freedom concerns that have arisen. Jihadists have established Sharia law in swaths of Azawad and have forced almost all of the Christians from the region to flee for their lives. Christian communities that once lived in cities like Timbuktu simply no longer exist. African states are pushing for Mali to be reunited and are looking to the US for aid in the endeavor. The issue between the Tuaregs and states like Mali are inherently political and a therefore a settlement may be viable. However, it is a reasonable possibility that there may never be a political settlement. All the while, Jihadists are making Azawad a safe-haven for them to base their operations. The US needs to be working with surrounding nations to fight the drug smuggling and the Jihadist as both will become inextricably linked. It is a delicate situation and is likely to descend farther in chaos.
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