A rapid turnaround in northern Mali has fully illuminated the multidimensional nature of netwar.
Last Thursday the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) passed a resolution outlining a dual-track approach of political negotiations and military engagement against dissenting Islamic militants. As if coordinated before the UNSC's unanimous vote - itself the process of intense calculation between NATO, the African Union and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) - Timbuktu's local Islamist outfit struck back immediately on Friday by announcing a pact with Mali's rival Tuareg movement. Under their public terms, Ansar Dine and the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) pledged to "coordinate their positions and actions in the context of seeking a peaceful and durable solution with the transitional authorities in Mali, with the guarantees of the relevant parties."
Their joint-statement claimed that mutual security would be established "through the deployment of security forces comprising members of both their groups."
These statements belie northern Mali's ground conditions, which indicate that no sustainable agreement can be forged between the two groups. They have already fallen out after leeching each other's abilities to rout Mali's army; once a days-long pact was broken in late May (or possibly never signed to begin with), Ansar Dine and its Islamist allies proceeded to kick the MNLA out of its Gao headquarters. The strategically-located city now hosts the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), an offshoot of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and is unlikely to be shared with the MNLA. The only tangible progress from months of negotiations between Ansar Dine and the MNLA, organized by neighboring Burkina Faso and Algeria, is the Islamists' military advance on MNLA positions.
Ansar Dine recently assisted in MUJAO's capture of westerly Léré after its leader delivered an ultimatum to the MNLA, essentially threatening to join or die. The MNLA rejected Iyad Ag Ghaly's message and "expressed their determination to fight against all terrorists."
Muddy as these negotiating waters are, Mali's fourth-generation reality emits a polarized clarity and reveals an ingenious plot at work. The possibility of Ansar Dine establishing sincere relations with the MNLA cannot be discarded entirely, on account of Ag Ghaly's history with Tuareg militias, but the odds hover near zero. In addition to a cutthroat ultimatum, Ansar Dine just spun off Mali's own version of Ansar al-Sharia with formal approval from the group's leadership. AQIM has supposedly tasked this new group to improve relations with its Libyan counterpart, a loose network of jihadist groups blamed for the assault on Benghazi's consulate, and potentially construct a training base in eastern Libya.
The group is reportedly overseen by Oumar Ould Hamaha, a senior military official connecting Ansar Dine and MUJAO. Hamaha, a local Tuareg from the Timbuktu area, also doubles as a confidante of AQIM personality Moktar Belmoktar, who announced the formation of his own El Moulethemine katibat ("Brigade of the Veiled Ones") in early December.
Ansar Dine and its allies' vision of peace is total control over northern Mali. Instead of negotiating an agreeable outcome with the international community or MNLA, the group is stalling to attract more human resources from West Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. Now Ansar Dine is taking shelter beneath the MNLA, a group that the international community cannot avoid negotiating with, in an attempt to stave off a foreign intervention entirely. This wise maneuver is reminiscent of the guerrilla hiding within an urban population, hugging civilians in order to deter aerial bombardment.
Following the UNSC's vote, an adviser of Mali's interim president said that his government is ready to "wage war against the terrorists and continue to negotiate with our brothers who are ready for dialogue."
Problematically, Malians are expecting military action but lack faith in their government and military, directing a trickle-up effect towards the UNSC. Furthermore, non-state actors move with exceptional quickness in relation to cumbersome international blocs. As a result of Mali's internal crisis, which legally bars the U.S. from direct aid, and the international community's hesitant response to the situation as a whole, both sets of actors have given the distinct impression that they seek to avoid fighting under the present conditions. The UNSC has painted itself into a corner by emphasizing dialogue over military action, and the Islamists are "cooperating" by giving what is being requested. Ansar Dine, AQIM and MUJAO all realize the advantage of this wariness to enter an uncertain terrain the size of Iraq, with less than ideal resources, for an unspecified length of time.
The end product: Ansar Dine is positioning itself as a necessary component of Mali's political solution and an outright international front of AQIM.
"We denounce this decision," Mohamed Ag Akharib, a representative of Ansar Dine, told reporters between meetings in Algiers. "We have always denounced the (planned) military intervention and we have said that it is not the solution. We are very optimistic and we ask Algeria and the international community to join us in searching for a peaceful solution to the Mali crisis."
Algiers' Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS) is suspected of manipulating both sides of the Sahel - coordinating with AQIM and other non-state actors in opposition to the Tuaregs, and using AQIM to establish favorable military and intelligence relations with Western capitals. The government's massive influence in the region is unlikely to prove a source of lasting stability in northern Mali, although Islamists and the Obama administration are both looking its way for assistance. To its credit Algiers is legitimately cautious of spillover into its territory and understands the opponent better than most. Military and intelligence analysts have reached a consensus that the proposed force - 3,000 ECOWAS soldiers, an equal number of Malians and NATO trainers to guide them - falls disturbingly short of northern Mali's taxing demands.
"You cannot really fight a conventional war there," warns Abdallah Baali, Algeria's ambassador to Washington. "Your enemy will vanish in the desert before your eyes."
Of the other scenarios in play, Ansar Dine could be gunning for absolute control of Mali's Tuareg movement with the intention of evicting AQIM, MUJAO and the MNLA in turn. Thus of all the conceivable scenarios, workable peace between Ansar Dine and the MNLA appears furthest removed from reality.