"Dear friends of the Festival au Désert, as all of you know very well, Mali is facing a very difficult period. While the North of Mali is actually in the hands of the islamist fighters, the South is still engaged in a political turmoil. In these conditions, it is impossible to organize our annual festival in the desert of Timbuktu."
This announcement appears on the website for the Festival au Désert, an international music festival held annually near Timbuktu in Mali since 2001. It succinctly sums up the current situation.
What is happening in that country is a shame. Mali is West African and Saharan in both geography and culture. It had a reputation for embracing, or at least managing, this diversity. However, Mali has never been a "Rousseauian" peaceable kingdom. The Tuaregs of the north have been seeking self determination for a century and have been fighting an insurgency on and off since at least 1962. As Qathafi was nearing his final fate, many of his Tuareg fighters emptied out arms depots and made their way to Mali. These heavily armed, well organized and trained forces joined the former Tuareg insurgents in northern Mali to form a reinvigorated National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). And so began the Tuareg Rebellion of 2012.
At the same time, another group formed and began fighting the Malian government in the north. This group, Ansar Dine, is Salafist in orientation and is aligned with Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM). Ansar Dine seeks to overthrow the government and establish an Islamic state in all of Mali.
The next complication was the military coup d’état in March 2012 when mutineering Malian soldiers overthrew the government of Amadou Toumani Touré. Predictably, international condemnation and sanctions ensued until the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) facilitated the establishment of an interim civilian government in April.
Meanwhile, back in Azawad the combined MNLA and Ansar Dine offensives seized control of the entire region including the towns of Goa and Timbuktu. At this point the MNLA declared victory and ceased offensive operations. For a while it seemed like these two factions would formerly join and rule Azawad jointly. However, the secular nationalist of the MNLA quickly felt the wrath of the uncompromising Salafists of Ansar Dine and AQIM. Sporadic fighting between the MNLA and the Salafists broke out in Gao, Timbuktu and other areas. The fighting was becoming tribal. The Salafists imposed Sharia law in areas they controlled resulting in incidents like those described by Colonel Lang in his recent post "The Search for Twaheed in Mali." Sufi shrines and tombs were desecrated by Ansar Dine in Timbuktu.
The nationalists MNLA is primarily Sufi. They seek recognition of Azawad as a separate Tuareg homeland. They see the growing influence Ansar Dine and AQIM as an obstacle to any hope of international recognition of their independence. The interim government in Bamako has no intention of recognizing Azawad and intends to regain control of the region with the assistance of an ECOWAS military force. The Salafists have continued to gain strength and are now better armed and funded than the MNLA. This appears to be another Islamist project underway, probably funded by the Saudis.
What should we do? We should not be issuing ultimatums or declaring what we will not tolerate. That would be a good start. A Salafist Islamist and AQIM stronghold in Azawad is certainly not in our interest, but do we really want to lump the Tuaregs into this mix? I recommend that we calmly and discreetly try to convince the new Malian government (whoever that might be) and ECOWAS to bite the bullet on Azawad. An independent Azawad under MNLA control is preferable to a Salafist Islamist force bent on bringing Sharia law to all Mali. If this quixotic and, at the same time, prudent diplomatic effort succeeds, I can see Special Forces teams working with Malian forces, ECOWAS forces and even MNLA forces to see that this particular Islamist project does not come to fruition.
Perhaps then I can have the opportunity to attend a future Festival au Désert. Maybe I'll put that on my bucket list.
The Wikipedia entry is a good place to start. Matthew Van Dyke, an American who fought with the Libyan rebels, wrote an insightful article on the rebellion and, like myself, thinks we should reach out to the Tuaregs. Andy Morgan, who helped organize Festival au Désert in its early days, has two articles on the MNLA and the leader/founder of Ansar Dine. I found this interesting site on Timbuktu. If you look at no other site, look at this one. It's illuminating. And of course the Festival au Désert.