Mali’s Army Just Lost Half the Country to Rebels—Again

Disastrous campaign shows little progress in the troubled nation

Mali’s military has lost control of the country’s northern reaches to Tuareg rebels for the second time in as many years. This latest campaign exposes a failing peace process and expanding fault lines with the country’s foreign backers.

Last week, government forces withdrew in disarray after a failed attempt to retake Kidal. That city is the main administrative center in the West African nation’s northern region. Mali’s Army also pulled out of Ménaka, Léré and Tessalit.

A new ceasefire is already in place following this latest debacle. But the clashes revealed some of the country’s fundamental weaknesses.

Perhaps most importantly, Malian authorities have no clear policy on the question of Tuareg autonomy. The traditionally nomadic group has sought greater freedoms for decades.

Mali’s decision makers are not getting much help from the country’s inept armed forces. Foreign powers also appear to be pursuing their own agendas in the country.

In the recent fighting, a coalition of armed groups killed at least 20 government soldiers. Malian forces remain unable to go toe-to-toe with rebels and foreign peacekeepers are reluctant to intervene on their behalf.

Malian soldiers train with U.S. forces. Air Force photo

Confrontation over cooperation

The recent ill fated government offensive came after a series of mutual provocations between the government and Tuareg armed groups.

On May 16, Malian Prime Minister Moussa Mara visited Kidal to show his support for the civil servants and government soldiers in the city. The officials and troops had been sent there to help get things ready for recent presidential elections.

Tuareg secessionists tolerated the government presence, but saw Mara’s stopover as a provocation. In response, rebels abducted 30 people and occupied the governor’s mansion.

The U.N. Stabilization Mission in Mali—also known by its French acronym MINUSMA—quickly got insurgents to release the hostages. But the government had already sent 1,500 reinforcements to the area.

Six days after the initial incidents, Malian forces tried and failed to retake the governor’s mansion. The troops lost some 20 men—including their second in command—in the six hour firefight.

Afterwards, the Malian Army ordered their remaining soldiers to pull out of Kidal. Other government troops then fled their positions amid fears of rebel reprisals.

The retreat from Kidal degenerated into a disorganized rout throughout the entire region. A coalition of Tuareg groups promptly took control of towns abandoned by the Malian Army without firing a shot.

After the government withdrawal, Mauritanian president Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz helped the parties quickly negotiate a ceasefire. But the damage has been done.

Earlier this year there was at least some hope for a real peace treaty between Bamako and the Tuaregs. The renewed tensions upended any progress the two sides had made.

The parties are back to their intractable and uncompromising positions yet again. And they have little incentive to change their attitudes.

For one, the insurgents have just achieved a major military victory. On the other side, Malians in the south are now demanding that their government take a harder line against the rebels.

Unidentified “African forces” supporting France’s intervention in Mali in February 2013. French Ministère de la Défense photo

Back to square one

The current situation fits an unfortunate theme in the country’s recent history. In 2012, the military successfully launched a coup to protest the anemic response to a new Tuareg rebellion.

In the ensuing chaos, militants took over the northern half the country—an area the size of France—without much resistance. But the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad had a very short lived victory.

Islamist groups allied with Al Qaeda also saw Mali’s power vacuum as an opportunity. The largely secular MNLA was overthrown only days after declaring the independence of their territory.

In Jan. 2013, former colonial power France came to the rescue. Thousands of French soldiers supported by a deadly bombing campaign beat back the Islamists.

French soldiers were celebrated as liberators in Bamako after the successful intervention. But Paris was more concerned with the terrorists and struck deals with local elements to support their operations.

The MNLA was chief among the groups who agreed to work with French forces to defeat extremist groups like Ansar Dine. France offered to take a neutral stance on their demands for greater autonomy in exchange for the assistance.

Malian authorities resent these arrangements and do not recognize them. France and other U.N. peacekeepers have now been the target of protests over perceived support for the secessionists.

U.S. Navy SEALs inspect Malian special operations forces. U.S. Africa Command photo

No way forward?

As it stands now, the same groups and individuals who took over northern Mali in 2011 are more or less in control of the area again. There is also a serious rift between Bamako and Paris. These are major setbacks for both countries on several levels.

First of all, French diplomats were obviously not able to preempt the recent escalation and may not have even been aware of the government’s offensive until it started. French influence in Bamako is now in question.

In addition, French-trained Malian forces performed poorly in Kidal despite outnumbering their opponents. Other international efforts to train Mali’s Army have also failed.

The episode also revealed a fundamental flaw in the French approach to the crisis. Mali’s collapse in 2012 was the result of a weak, corrupt and ineffective central government.

However, Paris chose to ally with the Tuareg to reach a short term goal instead of focusing on these larger issues. As a result, France effectively undermines efforts to strengthen the Malian state in the long term.

Mali’s government will need a cohesive domestic policy and a functional relationship with her international partners to break this unfortunate cycle.

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