Dear Azawad, What’s Going On?

New York- Confusion and lack of clarity is mostly what is emanating out of northern Mali’s three rebel controlled regions after the principal secularist rebel outfit, the MNLA, declared independence from the Malian republic today. The current situation is definitely one that begs more questions than provides answers.

The lightly populated northern regions which border Mauritania, Algeria and Niger take up far more land area than the more populous southern regions of the country where the capital Bamako lies. What I am finding interesting are two things: first, I haven’t seen anything from any international journalists who have actually traveled to Mali’s north to meet the MNLA and have a look at the situation for themselves and second, no one in the twitter/journo/wonk-o-sphere no matter how much authority they may try and write with, really knows what is going on amidst the chaos.

The main dispute is just which rebel/jihadi faction is either driving or in control of this logistically immense territorial takeover. Is the MNLA or the salafi Ansar Dine (alt. Ançar Dine, Ansar Eddine) really in control of Timbuktu? Are leaders of AQIM with Ansar as reported? Is the Harakat al-Tawhid w’al-Jihad fi Gharbi Afriqiyya (Movement for Monotheism/Unity and Jihad in West Africa-MUJWA) also involved in the takeover and ejection of Malian state forces? I think part (or perhaps largely) what answers my first question is that the hype of AQIM involvement–a group mostly gaining headlines for kidnapping Westerners–may keep journos and other assorted war tourists away from the area for now.

It certainly is possible or even probable that non-Malian nationals are tagging along with Ansar fighting groups but the ‘liberation’ of Azawad we are seeing is the result of an ethno-nationalist agenda. Maybe when the dust has settled we will see a internecine conflict between the MNLA and Harakat. If their various statements are to be believed, theirs may have been a marriage of convenience whereby the two groups were drawn together by a temporary convergence of strategic agendas. If so, this will certainly end in bloody divorce as a fight for the region’s control begins. To me this is evidenced by an Ansar statement to AFP today decrying the MNLA’s Azawad move.

Their high degree of difference in their outlooks is illustrated by the fact that the MNLA has a suited Paris-based spokesman while Iyad ag Ghaly’s Ansar has reportedly cut off a hand or two in their hasty implementation of Islamic law in Timbuktu. The two movements have entirely different approaches to how they communicate with the outside world. A British couple that fled the guesthouse they ran in Timbuktu credits the MNLA with aiding in their dramatic escape to Mauritania while the city’s tiny Christian minority reportedly fled in their entirety as Ghaly’s sharia-bent forces advanced.

Within the study of AQIM as a movement, there are so many questions as to whether AQIM is a legitimate salafi-jihadi group driven by ideology, is it a front for drug running, cigarette smuggling and other criminality in the Sahara? Or as some conspiracy types have posited, is it connected to or front for Algeria’s DRS intelligence service?

The MNLA and Ansar state they have widely divergent agendas. The MNLA has repeated that they seek a politically independent Tuareg homeland with democratic mechanisms. Ansar Dine say they seek not independence but the implementation of sharia law in the areas under their control. And then on top of all that AQIM and Harakat supposedly seek a pan-Sahel caliphate.

The recognition of Azawad in the near term is entirely unlikely by any regional or international powers and will be discouraged less it cause or encourage the splintering of Niger, Nigeria, Algeria etc. Unlike, say, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008, the Tuareg rebels in Mali do not have any known external political supporters. They may have had one in Libya had the eternally meddlesome Qaddafi survived last year’s war in that country. The main regional powers in Algiers and Abuja have no interest in seeing the situation in Mali worsen.

The Nigerian state is currently threatened by an increasingly emboldened Boko Haram movement in that country’s north while Algeria has seen no end of troubles since the beginning of the civil war there in 1992 and the ensuing GIA-GSPC-AQIM evolution. The United States waded into the mess that is France’s near abroad in 2002 with the beginning of counter terror training throughout West Africa that was meant to serve American interests in eliminating a then rather non-existent al-Qaeda threat to the region. One that has now manifested itself as a reality according to Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler’s account of his AQIM ordeal in the Telegraph.

For now I can only do my own armchair analysis from afar as I don’t have the means to zip over to Bamako at the moment. Hopefully that will change.

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