As reported last weekend, the militant tandem of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) has entered the final stage of a campaign to uproot the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA) from Mali's urban centers.
The two forces, one representing Islamic militants from the Eastern Hemisphere and the other stumping for Tuareg rights, have battled for months along northern Mali's population belt. MUJAO and the MNLA clashed on Friday amid significant confusion, with each claiming the initiative and subsequent victory following an ambush near Ansongo. Specifically, the MNLA claimed that its forces were attempting a counteroffensive on Gao, where the group was evicted by MUJAO and AQIM fighters in late June. MUJAO, in turn, placed its infiltration of Ansongo within a broader strategic offensive to take Menaka, the MNLA's temporary headquarters located near Niger's border.
Available information leaned in MUJAO's favor and was confirmed by the group's recent arrival in Menaka.
However Monday and Tuesday's fighting unfolded with equal ambiguity. On one side, MNLA spokesman Moussa Ag Assarid said “around 30 MUJAO and AQIM vehicles" preceded the attack on Menaka, but claimed that his group repelled their advance. He counted only one casualty. A statement posted on the MNLA's website revised their losses to six dead and six wounded, and explained that its forces have "positioned around Menaka... to avoid a human tragedy." The statement put MUJAO and AQIM's casualties at 36 dead and "many injured."
MUJAO offered a polarized version. Spokesman Omar Hamaha estimated the MNLA's death-toll above 90, counting 40 casualties on Friday and 50 on Monday. He said the group lost four fighters and was treating seven wounded. Another spokesman, Abu Walid Sahraoui, claimed to be speaking from within Menaka when he declared, "We've taken prisoners and there were many deaths on the MNLA side." Sahraoui thanked the support of "reinforcements from its Muslim brothers" - AQIM - boasting that the alliance now "controls everything."
Several local eyewitness said that MUJAO gunmen had "taken the military camp and are shouting Allah Akbar (God is great)."
The truth likely rests somewhere in the middle of both accounts. Assarid says that his group still controls part of the desert town, telling the AFP, "We have not given up on Menaka." MNLA fighters have encamped in the area and are liable to mount stiffer resistance than usual, on account that they have nowhere else to run except into Niger. Problematically for the group, northern Mali's overall situation favors the Islamist umbrella and reinforcements are overwhelming the MNLA's local resources. The group is operating as a shell of the force that stormed across Mali in early 2012, seemingly unable to recruit enough manpower from its own backyard. Conversely, MUJAO and AQIM's successes (along with the possibility of jihad against the U.S. and Europe) will continue attracting foot soldiers from West Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.
The MNLA is treading water and stalling for time - foreign support is necessary in order to prove effective during the international community's intervention. Western and African powers themselves face an uphill battle to establish a legitimate government in Mali, mobilize African forces and provide them with Western logistics, estimate the Islamists' numbers and capabilities, understand the full range of non-military issues, and convince neighboring Algeria to approve an open-ended military campaign.
"Seeking to restore the unity of Malian territory by force is an adventure that will never succeed, because it will lead to a military confrontation that could exacerbate tensions in the region,” Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia told state radio on Tuesday.
Whether these develops accelerate the international community's decision-making remains to be seen, but new reports speculate that an operation could begin as early as January 2013. This dilemma is likely to increase the risk of heading into northern Mali's battlefield without a defined battle plan.