Mali's main Tuareg rebel group said on Sunday [7 October 2012] it was no longer seeking to carve out a sovereign desert homeland, softening its stance as it seeks Western support to rout Islamists that have taken over the region.
In April the MNLA had declared an independent state in Mali's north called Azawad, days after a coup in Mali's southern capital Bamako, but Al Qaeda-linked Islamists later hijacked the rebellion and took control of the vast territory.
Western and regional powers are now mulling military intervention to retake the zone amid fears an Islamist safe haven could destabilize the region, and MNLA is aggressively seeking backing for a role in the effort.
"We declare a right to self-determination, but that doesn't mean secession," said Ibrahim Ag Assaleh, an MNLA official, following a meeting with regional mediator and Burkinabe President Blaise Compaore in Ouagadougou. (reported by Mathieu Bonkongou for Reuters in Ouagadougou)
This is a smart move by the MNLA. It provides an opening for the still amorphous interim government in Bamako to cooperate with the Tuaregs to take on the Salafists of Ansar Dine and AQIM. Without this concession by the MNLA, cooperation would be impossible. No Malian government has acquiesced to the succession of Azawad. Not the present interim government. Not the coup's National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy and State (CNRDR). Nor did any of the governments preceding the coup. I seriously doubt acceptance of Azawad independence could be voiced by any faction in Bamako with aspirations to eventually lead the country.
During the late 90s, the Malian government of Dr. Alpha Oumar Konaré made a decision to hitch his country's wagon to the American star. Working with Dr. Konaré's DGSE, Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga, we (DIA) formed a closer intelligence relationship with Mali. Separate from this effort, 10th Special Forces Group conducted several MTTs (military training teams) to Mali over the last decade. Maiga later became Mali's foreign minister under President Amadou Toumani Touré. He was one of the ministers arrested during the coup. I have no idea what happened to Maiga since then. I wish the gentleman well. Interestingly, the leader of the coup, Captain Amadou Sanogo, was a participant in our IMET (International Military Education and Training) program. He studied English at Lackland Air Force Base and took courses at Fort Huachuca, Fort Benning and Quantico.
With the opening provided by the MNLA and our history with the Malian military, I think this is an opportune time for us to do something positive in the region. We do have a vital interest there. The Salafist jihadists are well on the way to establishing a vast base in the area and they are out gunning every other force in the region. Is this an existential threat? Not by a long shot, but if ignored I believe it will eventually bite us in the butt. We should support whatever ECOWAS manages to cobble together to confront AQIM along with any other regional efforts. And we should stop our insane insistence on the election of a new government in Bamako before we do anything. Even Captain Sanogo thinks that is unrealistic given the current dire situation. If we wait, AQIM and Ansar Dine may end up in Bamako and no one will ever see a "free and fair" election. On the diplomatic front we should push the interim government in Bamako and the MNLA into an agreement to at least set aside their differences and cooperate to take on AQIM.
The Malian army is in tatters and the Tuaregs of the MNLA have been knocked back on their heels. However, the Tuaregs are probably still the most capable force opposing AQIM. AQIM's imposition of sharia law in Azawad is grating on the populace. They are wearing out their welcome , so to speak, and are creating the conditions fro a Tuareg backlash. I would like to see a Special Forces Battalion, perhaps 1/10 based in Stuttgart, get the long term mission to reorganize, train and advise both the Malian and Tuareg forces. Probably a third of the battalion would be on the ground at any one time. Don't recreate a Camp Lemonnier or CJTF-HOA. And for god's sake don't try to recreate a modern army where there never was one. Think of forming a hybrid insurgent - national army rather than a neatly organized series of combat brigades. Use the arms and equipment on hand. Fill the holes as needed. Provide maintenance and ammunition. Teach shooting. Teach combat leadership. Much of the Malian army still uses the SKS. No problem. Von Lettow-Vorbeck's askaris were largely equipped with the 1871 Mauser firing 11mm black powder cartridges and they did quite well in East Africa.