July 27, 2012

Thickening Fog of War Over Northern Mali

Despite a combination of factors that are working to generate al-Qaeda's largest sanctuary in its history, northern Mali remains a back-page story in most American media circles. The discrepancy is both easy and difficult to explain since U.S. military officials warn that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its allies, Ansar Dine and the Movement For Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), intend to strike American targets like the rest of al-Qaeda's branches. Except northern Mali has yet to receive the same official reaction bestowed on Pakistan, Somalia or Yemen, where U.S. counterterrorism operations accelerated from 15 to 100 MPH over the last 30 months. The Obama administration has chosen to respond to Mali with inactive silence, punctuated by dire but brief alarms of another terrorist haven.

This observation isn't made in demand a more public and weightier U.S. response to northern Mali. However the gap between Washington's reaction to northern Mali and al-Qaeda's other established sanctuaries is growing as fast as foreign fighters can enter the country. 

Washington's quiet is partially explainable and understandable - events in northern Mali simply present an unfavorable situation for Western and African capitals alike. What's left of the national government remains in turmoil after a military coup threw the country into total disarray in late March. By then the Tuareg-dominated National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and Ansar Dine had already seized most of the north, and Timbuktu would fall soon after the coup struck Bamako. Having missed one deadline to hold elections, the interim government is still struggling to survive multiple shakeups and might not be reestablished before 2013. 

Failing to restore a legitimate government before launching a military campaign to retake the north, whether national or foreign-led, is risking disaster. 

Other political considerations are sinking beneath the reality on the ground. Stated as a fact, many analysts point out that the final months of a presidential campaign offer a terrible window to jump into another asymmetric war. One could argue that domestic support is necessary to sustain any military campaign, but the Obama administration is equally unlikely to enjoy this support after a November victory. That leaves northern Malians and their neighbors at the whim of American (and European) politics. With President Barack Obama constantly promoting the demise of al-Qaeda, bringing up Mali and the "lighter style" of warfare that failed to contain its descent (Special Forces are imbedded in and around the country) doesn't make for smart campaigning either. 

These factors are both ethically inexcusable and detrimental to organizing an efficient politico-military response. 

Militarily speaking, U.S. air forces are already stretched thin across the region and Syria's potential is sapping most of Washington's contingency focus. Although the Pentagon and CIA are visibly expanding their networks in north Africa, it's not unreasonable to conclude that Mali's mission is "too big" for Washington's comfort. The Sahel's genie essentially escaped and the coverup will consume more resources than anticipated: a larger conflict impedes the "lighter," cheaper strategy of pairing Special Forces with African militaries, creating potential friction between governments and local populations.

Islamic militants have redirected into northern Mali for a variety of reasons, but they collectively realize that they outmaneuvered the West's presence in the Gulf. 

Furthermore, bringing a U.S.-backed war to Mali could create a new quagmire in the heart of north Africa. The internal situations in the south and north are both incredibly complex, and the West would be walking nearly blind into the Tuareg's historic liberation movement. Many ethnic minorities are trapped in between and Mali's tribal politics are likely to be overlooked. On the militant side, it would be a mistake to believe that AQIM, Ansar Dine and MUJAO hope the West invades their newly christened Islamic state, as these groups would welcome an uninterrupted opportunity to grow roots. They know they would be initially routed from their urban strongpoints. At the same time, those in de facto control of northern Mali are vocally prepared to battle Americans and Europeans to the death, and they will retain many advantages in the north's vast expanse. 

On a strategic level, Washington seems to be primarily interested in developing the military experience of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). This arrangement explains the West's hesitation and promotes internal solutions to African problems, while allowing Western capitals to exert their own military influence behind ECOWAS and the African Union's (AU) shields. Thus the likeliest possibility will send an ECOWAS force (presumably above the 3,000 awaiting deployment) to fight a ground war under Western air power, in order to defer costs and deter the impression of another American intervention in Africa. 

Nevertheless, developments in northern Mali continue to evolve under ambiguous circumstances. 

Enter General Carter Ham, commander of AFRICOM and vocal advocate of the Pentagon's "small footprints." For months the general has watched Islamic militants infiltrate the heart of his AO, only capable of mustering threats as he connects AQIM's dots with Nigeria's Boko Haram, Somalia's al-Shabaab and Yemen's al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Now he warns that the international community "missed an opportunity to deal with AQIM when they were weak," allowing the group to become "al-Qaeda's best funded, wealthiest affiliate.” 

Unfortunately Ham's latest testimony adds more uncertainty to Mali's power equation. No other branch's origins and funding, not even AQAP, is so vigorously doubted as AQIM's, which is suspected of doubling as an Algerian proxy against the Tuaregs and other ethnic groups. While the infiltration of Algeria's Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS) is likely exaggerated, the narrative is prevalent enough to warrant serious concerns over U.S.-Algerian relations. Both stand accused of using AQIM's threat to expand their security profile in north Africa at the cost of Algeria's democratic growth, as demonstrated by Washington's non-reaction to limited protests.

Dismantling AQIM's network is impossible without addressing the shadows hanging over Algiers and Washington.

As the situation stands, General Ham admits that the dynamic between Mali's Islamist groups is "complex," and that "it was not clear if they were aligned on an ideological or a purely opportunistic basis." He claims that AQIM and its allies are determined to strike American targets, even though The Wall Street Journal reports, "U.S. counterterrorism officials said that for now, AQIM militants in Mali appear focused on local and regional issues, rather than on using the haven to plot attacks against the U.S." Elsewhere, anonymous "Western security officials" argue that Ansar Dine and MUJAO are operating as a front for AQIM, ultimately contaminating the Tuareg elements within Ansar Dine. 

“They organize everything," one official is quoted as saying. "Food, military training, intelligence, ideological training. Let us not be mistaken, the hundreds of youths being recruited in the name of MUJAO or Ansar Dine are really AQIM fighters." 

MUJAO allegedly broke away from AQIM due to its suspicions of Algerian influence. 

Regardless of the veracity of these intertwining accounts, Western capitals have overextended their credibility in north Africa and cannot be trusted at face value. With military ambitions rising in the absence of a greater situational awareness, Mali's fog of war will continue to thicken as each actor pursues their own agenda.

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