The Consequences of Leading From Behind: Mali

On March 22, Taureg rebels, fueled by an influx of weapons brought in by mercenaries fighting for Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, successfully overthrew the government of Mali, ending 20 years of democracy. Weapons from the US-sponsored Libyan civil war have shown up in conflicts throughout Africa and the Middle East, but perhaps nowhere have the consequences been as dire as they are in Mali.  Exacerbating matters, it now appears that al-Qaeda have co-opted the rebellion and are using this “historic opportunity” to create an Islamic state in Mali’s Taureg controlled northern region.

President Amadou Toure' was successfully ousted when beleaguered and outgunned Malian troops in the capitol city of Bamako revolted—joining the coup and ending the government that has long been held up as a model for burgeoning African democracies. Rebels immediately used their advantage to seize cities across the north, including Timbuktu, and have now declared a separate Taureg state called Azawad.

An interim government was quickly assembled with a previously jailed labor union activist as its head. It intended organizing elections and returning the country to democratic rule. However the veracity of the junta was called into question when leading political figures were arrested by the military.  Earlier this week the interim leader was assaulted by pro-military demonstrators in the capitol palace and is now in France being treated for his injuries, leaving the West African nation without an operating government.

These events have had a devastating effect both on the country and the region. The Tauregs are a nomadic people that occupy the Sahara Desert in northern Mali and surrounding countries in the region. Similar to the Kurds, modern political borders have made them subject to multiple governments. In south Mali, the lighter skinned Tauregs are being singled out for ethnic attacks. "People started attacking anything Tuareg: They burnt houses, cars and attacked anyone with white skin--even Arabs," said a man who barely escaped from one of these assaults.

Refugees escaping the fighting in the northern region, confronted by ethnic cleansing by the Bambara in the south, are now fleeing to neighboring countries where UNHCR (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) camps are now housing over 300,000 refugees from the crisis. The UNHCR is preparing for that number to grow significantly.

In the north, the government has fallen and most major cities are held by the rebels, including the fabled Timbuktu.  The rebels have declared a separatist state of Azawad; but the African Union, the European Union, and the United States have refused to recognize it. The dominate rebel group is the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad), supported by AQIM (local al-Qaeda) and Islamic Ansar Dine, an armed fundamentalist Islamist group. A strategy for implementing Sharia law has already been articulated. In Timbuktu, a holy tomb designated a UNESCO World Heritage site has been destroyed by militants preparing to institute radical Islamic law.

The al-Qaeda-Taureg alliance is particularly troubling because Tauregs only make up an estimated three million out of the 14.5 million inhabitants of northern Mali, and ethnic cleansing has been a feature of their previous uprisings. Human Rights Watch has already documented rape, executions, dismemberment, public floggings and compulsory child soldiering along with pillaging of schools, hospitals, aid agencies, and government buildings. Abductions have also occurred centering around women and Christians. More Islamist mercenaries, undesired in Libya after the conclusion of the civil war, are also moving into the region, and surrounding countries are bracing for the spill over.

With no functioning government or law enforcement, tribal clashes have already begun along some of Mali’s borders. On the Burkina Faso-Mali border, clashes between rival tribes have resulted in atrocities such as people being burned alive; thousands of villagers have already been displaced.

The only statement from the U.S. came from the embassy in Bamako concerning the assault on the junta leader, calling it a "flagrant attack", adding the United States "remains deeply troubled and saddened by continued violations against Mali's democracy. Repeated incidents of violence and delays serve only to weaken Mali and its capacity to respond to territorial, security and humanitarian crises."

The Obama “lead from behind” strategy may seem like a very clean and cost effective way to conduct war or intervene in the conflicts of others. Senator John Kerry thinks we should do it again in Syria, and just today U.S. officials have stated they will be “vetting” members of the Syrian opposition for receiving American assistance. The U.S. will be directly supporting a group that has been infiltrated by al-Qaeda. But as we watch events unfold in Egypt, it seems prudent for America to ask itself what of its interests are being served, and what lonely democracy in the region may end up paying the price like Mali.


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