Sunday, 29 July 2012

Trouble in Timbuktu

Well, I was going to sit down and write one of the articles off my list until I noticed something quite interesting that might be worth looking at just briefly. Many news agencies are reporting that Spain has evacuated most of its aid workers, along with aid workers of some other countries, from Western Algeria. This has been caused by increasing violence and kidnappings aimed at aid workers working in refugee camps who are handling those fleeing from fighting and famine in Northern Mali.

A non-coastal country in north western Africa, Mali was formed in 1960 when it gained independence from France. Unfortunately, like many nations that were once colonies, the territorial boundaries of Mali have more to do with drawing neat lines with other nations than they do with accurately representing any kind of cultural or national bond between the people that fall inside of them.

In Mali the biggest divide occurs between the richer and more temperate south and the poorer, largely arid north. While the seat of government sits in the south, the north has long been considered to be much more difficult for the Malian government to assert control over, with the conditions being remote and hostile, and the people much more tribal in nature. The north has seen little of the government revenue that Mali raises, unless you count the presence of military uniforms.

One of the main tribal groupings present in the north is that of the Tuareg people, whose historic "home" stretches across central and north eastern Mali, northern regions of Burkina Faso (which borders Mali to the south east), large swathes of western Niger (east of Mail) and south eastern Algeria (north of Mali), reaching all the way up and into the south western corner of Libya.

Many Tuareg's driven from their traditional homes found themselves in the pay and service of one Colonel Gaddafi. Being that they were not what you would call "native Libyans" they made perfect candidates as mercenaries for the Gaddafi regime to be used against domestic trouble. With the end of Gaddafi's rule and the transition of Libya towards democracy, these fighters shifted back to the south west and many have found themselves returning to Mali.

Intertwined with the activities of the Tuareg is 'Al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb', a salafist Islamic group whose primary stated aim is to secure Islamic rule over a state or states in northern Africa. Much of their activity has previously been directed at Algeria, but also Tunisia and to a lesser degree Libya. Their area of operations significantly overlaps with the "home" of the Tuareg people, but stretches even further east into Chad and west into Mauritania.

This mix, along with a number of other smaller groups, has lead to increasing anti-government violence over the years in northern Mali. This escalated with the fall of Gaddafi and the return of many trained fighters to the region, just as food shortages became widespread in Mali. This violence, and the perceived mishandling of it by the government (lack of weapons for the soldiers, some men being sent to the front without food), prompted a somewhat impromptu military coup in March, lead by Captain Amadou Sanogo.

Ironically - but unsurprisingly - the coup actually made things worse in the fight against the northern rebellion, as command and control of the army began to break down, with many senior military officers going into hiding or outright fleeing the country, along with a breakdown in the already tenuous supply chain leading to the front.

The result is that the rebellion has made many gains, including capturing a number of towns like Gao and Timbuktu, while pressing further south towards the city of Mopti, a significant trading hub. The fighting, combined with food shortages that have left many people facing starvation, has forced large numbers of people to flee the region into neighbouring countries such as Algeria.

The International Issue
French, Italian and Spanish aid workers had been serving the refugee camps in Algeria up until the recent withdrawals. With the deteriorating security situation spreading into southern Algeria the calls for action are growing louder with each day. Two of the touted primary actors in any outside intervention are the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) or the African Union (AU). Both face challenges.

ECOWAS, with the exception of perhaps Nigeria, does not really have the manpower or equipment to make a significant difference on its own, not least because Nigeria is already struggling with security issues on its own soil with the group Boko Haram. The AU meanwhile is already active on the ground in Somalia, an operation that has thrown up some tensions and issues among some of the AU members.

Algeria, what with the trouble brewing right on their doorstep, could be a big part of any peace plan, but even then Algeria has found it difficult to manage the security situation in the south for many years. At this point it seems more likely that for any meaningful progress to be made the solution would have to come from the UN, likely with France in the lead and members of the EU in tow.

Why would the west want to get involved in yet another protracted intervention on foreign soil though? Well the problem really lies with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb using the conflict as cover to gain territory in which to base its training operations, along with the funding that is available from various activities that can be conducted in such a safe region. It is already believed that groups such as the Nigerian Boko Haram are also looking to "move in" and join the greater freedom of movement and day to day operation that could be afforded in such a region.

To think that this will lead to anything other than a negative outcome for the west is foolish. This was precisely the problem that Afghanistan presented prior to 9/11; a safe haven where terrorist organisations could recruit and train operatives, store equipment, make plans and collect funds. More to the point, this is occurring very close to Europe and European interests.

Algeria and Tunisia are just a short hop across the Mediterranean. Allowing terrorist groups to develop large, organised safe havens from which they could push insecurity, instability and possibly civil war into these countries is not a state of affairs that Europe can particularly allow, whether it likes it or not.

And if these groups are allowed to spread further insecurity, including more sophisticated attack methods, to places like Nigeria it could add a significant threat to the stability of oil prices. Nigeria is one of the top five suppliers of energy products to the United States, who I doubt would be especially keen to see inconsistency in their supply and a spike in the market rates. A reduction (not a complete loss) in oil demand from the US would be a significant blow to Nigeria's economy, which is why tackling groups such as Boko Haram has become such a major issue for the Nigerian government.

Both Europe and the United States then have incentives for intervening, on whatever scale they ultimately decide is appropriate.

The example provided by Mali demonstrates how much of an issue Africa still is to Europe, and by extension to the UK. It's demographic make up, the climate of the region, and the legacy of its colonial past creates friction that is difficult to predict accurately beyond small time frames, and which can subsequently lead to conditions that pose a long term threat to nations outside of the African continent, especially those close to it.

The problem for the west will be in trying to convince electorates who are weary of foreign adventures to view fresh undertakings as having a positive effect on something as intangible as their long term security.


  1. Do you think a sensible way forward is helping the African Union with training, logistics, specialist skills and capabilities.

    We have explicitly recognised this in Army 2020 with the trendy new buzzword Upstream Engagement, I think it is a very sensible way of balancing the need to act with political and financial reality, especially if we can coordinate with others and at least try and keep the lid on things.

    We don't need a definitive victory but something to keep the lid on

  2. Aye.

    This is precisely the kind of thing I believe the government is thinking about with "upstream engagement". Preventing something becoming a wider spread problem than it already is.

    We have knowledge that we can pass on to the Malian and Algerian security apparatus, everything from establishing and manning checkpoints to more sneaky beaky stuff with intelligence gathering and observation.

    Like you said TD, there doesn't even need to be a definitive "victory", just containing the problem would serve European interests, while helping to pave the way for more extensive operations by the locals in their own time which would serve their long term purposes.

  3. Hi Chris

    Interesting article but as for military intervention from NATO I highly doubt it. No western country is going to be willing for another intervention on foreign soil. Politically it is extremely hard to sell to the public and opposition parties most likely will have a field day especially if it is protracted. Then you have to consider the costs of such an operation, with all western nations in such financial straits.

    Potential the UN in a small scale peace keeping role is possible but would still rely on local forces to eradicate the threat and gain control of these territories. Though I feel most likely it will have to be dealt with by neighbouring African states and organisations. Therein the west may feel it prudent to fund/train such activities as ,is being done in somalia, has been done so many times before in trouble spots around the world. This has been found to be a much better way of getting results and would exemplify how useful special forces are.


    p.s look forward to your upcoming posts

  4. Hi Mick,

    I did say UN and not NATO, precisely for the reasons you've stated. It would have to be a UN intervention for it to stick, not least with the African Union, on a small scale, and designed probably from the start to just halt the progress of the rebels and to protect refugee camps. Then the work of training up the government forces begins, and yes, the deployment of special forces.

    I think voting publics are a little less concerned when they hear the words "UN sanctioned" because it throws up ideas of it having greater legitimacy ("if the Belgians don't mind, it must be ok?") and also because I think people see it as more a multi-lateral issue when the UN is involved, so the idea sticks better in peoples minds that we're not going this alone, whereas I think a lot of people either forget or simply aren't aware that places like Afghanistan are handled by just as diverse a range of countries.

    What size of force needed would be interesting, because one concern I have is that an intervention takes place in Mali, and then the trouble just shifts elsewhere.

  5. Chris, what are your thoughts in blending local forces with private contractors, with for example, the UK funding some or all of it and providing some of the more complex capabilities

    A new model in public private partnership :)

  6. TD,

    Depends what those private contractors are doing. Running firearms courses? Basic policing and security training? I can see that kind of thing.

    Or are you thinking more along the lines of more... "active" contractors?

    Contractors is a broad term.

  7. I was thinking of the full spectrum, why not

  8. Erm, much depends on what services you can secure, the rates, and how effective they are.

    My thoughts would be that you would want to keep the committment as small as possible and emphasise the local forces doing most of the day to day leg work, with the UN forces there to prop them up a little and to provide the long range intelligence gathering capabilities, transport and some attack (from the air).

    Keeping the footprint on the ground small is key to avoiding too much controversy at home and contractors tend to attract undesirable levels of support.

    Of course if they can indeed keep the numbers of our own deployed, uniformed personnel down, then maybe it'll be worth it.