[This oped of mine appeared in the New York Times/Herald Tribune on January 15, 2013]
WESTERN powers were taken by surprise by the sudden emergence of an Islamist regime in northern Mali, and are scrambling to understand what has transpired there. Increasingly, the narrative is one of militant Islam. But the core of the conflict is the nationalist secession movement of the Tuareg people — one that in recent months has been hijacked by Islamist radicals.
In the Cold War, the West had a hard time separating out communism from nationalism. That failure led to a string of disastrous interventions, from Cuba to Vietnam. It was easier to see leaders such as Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh as tools of Moscow than try to deal with their legitimate nationalist demands.
The same mistake is now being made in the “war on terror.” For many years the international community largely ignored the demands for self-determination by the Tuaregs who inhabit the northern half of Mali, known as Azawad. The Tuaregs are nomadic pastoralists who number about 1.5 million and speak Tamashek, one of the Berber languages. They are ethnically distinct from Arabs, who make up the nations to the north, and the Africans who inhabit southern Mali and control the national government.
Across Africa and the Middle East, Western powers supported the post-colonial state with economic and military aid, which more often than not was used to crush self-determination movements by ethnic minorities. Some of these were well-known, such as the Kurds; others were more or less invisible to Western eyes, such as the Berbers and Tuaregs in North Africa.
Mali achieved independence from France in 1960, and the first Tuareg uprising broke out in 1962. A second rebellion in 1990 resulted in the 1991 Tamanrasset Accords promising the Tuaregs self-government, which were abandoned by the Malian authorities. After 2001 the United States stepped up its military aid to the Malian government in the name of the war on terror, though this assistance could have been just as easily used to crush Tuareg rebels as against Islamist radicals.
The third Tuareg rebellion, which broke out in 2006, was complicated by the rise of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM), meaning that there was now a three-way struggle among Islamists, Tuareg nationalists and the Malian state.
At first the Tuaregs and Malians formed an alliance against the Islamists, but in 2011 the Tuaregs switched sides and aligned with the Islamists. A new Islamist movement emerged, Ansar Dine, led by Iyad Ag Ghali, who had been one of the leaders of the 1990 and 2006 Tuareg revolts.
October 2011 saw an influx of Tuareg fighters and Islamist radicals from Libya following the defeat of the Qaddafi regime. A new unified National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) was formed, and it started an all-out war against the Malian government in January 2012.
After a string of military victories, they achieved in a few weeks the goal that had eluded them for decades — the expulsion of the Malian Army from northern Mali. The humiliation of the Malian armed forces led to a coup in March that brought down the democratically elected president, Amadou Toumani Touré. The independence of Azawad was declared on April 6, 2012.
However, Ansar Dine and some smaller jihadist groups turned on the MNLA — a contest in which they had the advantage of economic and military support from the transnational Islamist network. They imposed harsh Shariah rule on the towns under their control, causing at least 400,000 residents to flee.
It was their continued advance south — to spread Islamist rule, not to secure independence for the Tuaregs — that triggered French military action this past weekend after months of efforts by the African Union had failed to organize a military intervention to deal with the problem.
The position of the U.S. government (and the African Union) is still to ignore the Tuareg independence movement and instead call for democracy and reconciliation within a unified Mali. This despite the fact that previous attempts to form power-sharing governments repeatedly broke down due to failure to protect the rights of the Tuaregs.
At this stage, however, it might be too late for the Western forces that are entering the fray to distinguish and win over the moderate nationalists within the Tuareg ranks.