Mali update: African regional troops arriving; France playing wack-a-mole

U.S. Air Force photo by Capt. Jason SmithThe BBC Africa service reports that the first 200 Nigerian troops of the UN intervention force are on their way to Mali. Nigeria plans to deploy 700 more along with fighter jets in the coming weeks. They will be leading the African forces in the UN mission. French military ally and regional neighbor Chad has committed 2,000 troops. Benin, neighboring Ghana, neighboring Niger, neighboring Senegal, neighboring Burkina Faso, and Togo also plan to participate in the police action, with probably about 400 more troops between them.

The UN-created coalition (read: PDF of UNSC Resolution 2085 from December 2012) has been named the “African-led International Support Mission in Mali” (AFISMA) and is tasked with re-capturing northern Mali from Tuareg separatist groups, training the Malian Army who apparently didn’t take direction well from the US trainers, supporting the interim democratic government to prevent another military coup, and organizing the safety of humanitarian missions.

The deployment has been accelerated by quite a few months due to the sudden progression of separatist troops beyond the unofficial dividing line in the conflict which prompted the start of a major French military campaign last Friday in response. France and the other Western powers believe that many of the separatist organizations in the impoverished, sparsely populated semi-desert region of northern Mali have links to terrorism including Al Qaeda affiliates.

One of the major groups claiming to represent the political and military aspects of the Tuareg ethnic separatist movement is an explicitly Islamist political group called Ansar Dine, which purports to impose some form of Sharia law across northern Mali and possibly the whole of Mali. Their main rival group is the longtime leading organization of the separatists known as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA being the French abbreviation), which is secular and pro-independence and probably wasn’t really tied to terrorism. However, the MNLA lost territorial control of northern Mali in June 2012 to the Ansar Dine in a series of internecine skirmishes while the Malian government was still in some disarray from the spring military coup. (The coup took place in the south during the latest of many northern Tuareg rebellions over the past 99 years.)

Although the Malian government has long accused the MNLA of terrorist links for the cynical purpose of getting “War on Terror” funding from Western governments, it is far more credible to assert real terrorist links between the Ansar Dine and similar Islamist insurgent operations in North and East Africa, including Al Qaeda of the Maghreb (North Africa) or more likely the Shahab in Somalia (who have themselves recently been severely disrupted by intense African Union military campaigns). This rise of Ansar Dine and their serious movements toward expanding into the more populous southern “half” of Mali has understandably caused an uptick in concern and attention from the Western governments, thus prompting the sudden French intervention last week.

Meanwhile, as West African troops arrive, France (which I’m not sure will be part of the AFISMA/UN mission at all) now has 800 troops on the ground in Mali and that number is set to swell to 2,500. 50 armored vehicles have been deployed northward toward the front. The unilateral French air campaign in the north in support of the Malian government in the south continues at full tilt out of air bases in Chad.

The Malian Army is only participating lightly in ground actions coordinated with these airstrikes — hampering efforts to consolidate and hold any gains — and are reportedly fighting in “hand-to-hand combat” with rebels just 220 miles north of the capital, which seems fairly unproductive to me. Although the French operation initially dislodged the separatist forces from the informal border line between north and south this past weekend, these rebel troops suddenly reappeared on Monday much further southwest into government-held territory.

However, the separatist force holding Timbuktu seems to have withdrawn entirely from the ancient city, according to locals. It’s a bit of a game of wack-a-mole right now without much ground cooperation to keep any ground “won” from the bombings.

AFD Ep 34 – David Waldman on Filibusters

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Description: After a lengthy hiatus, Bill returns to the air with an in-depth interview on filibuster reform with David Waldman, a commentary on the issues facing the new Congress, an explanation of the French military campaign in Mali, and a note on the US timetable in Afghanistan. Sasha also chimes in for a discussion of the status of women in American politics at the start of 2013.

After delay, a smooth runoff in Guinea

After a very successful first round presidential election in June – its first in the post-independence period – the West African state of Guinea finally managed to hold a smooth second round between the top two first round candidates this weekend, after a very troubling period of delays and ethnic clashes over the past several months. NY Times:

After weeks of delays, ethnic tensions and clashes between the police and rival groups of supporters, this mineral-rich but poor West African nation quietly went to the polls Sunday to choose its first-ever democratically elected president.

Sunday’s vote unfolded calmly as citizens lined up outside schools and other polling places, waiting to cast ballots in a runoff election originally scheduled for last summer. Since then, disputes over the leadership of the electoral commission and fighting between rival ethnic groups allied with each of the two candidates have led to repeated postponements.

But apart from the late arrival of voting materials — ink and ballots — at polling places in this nation of about 10 million people, international observers said they noted few hitches on Sunday.

Great news. And it appears that the key to the smooth election was to bring in a total outsider from neighboring Mali to run the election commission during the runoff, to prevent accusations that one ethnic group or another was controlling the outcome.

As the vote was repeatedly delayed, ethnic tensions increased, amid confusion over who was in charge of the election.

The first head of the electoral commission was convicted of fraud and died in Paris a short while later. His replacement was accused by Mr. Diallo, who is from a different ethnic group, of bias. In October, a Malian general was appointed to head the commission, calming the rival camps. But before that, there were repeated violent clashes. In September, one person was killed and dozens were wounded in fighting in the streets here in the capital between groups of supporters of Mr. Diallo and Mr. Conde.

The country of Mali has had a very successful transition to democracy after the end of military rule in the early 1990s and the peaceful transfer of power between presidents in 2002. The country has a functioning unity government, a popularly elected president and assembly, and the military is supportive of the civilian rulers and does not interfere with political affairs. The decision to bring in Malian advisers and figures of authority may prove to have been the crucial decision in smoothing the way for Guinea’s first election. The Malian general is an outsider, but he is from West Africa (as opposed to bringing in European or American teams), and he represents one of the best examples of democratic transition in the region, while his military status makes him an authority figure and somebody that the Guinean Transitional Government — who are also mostly military officers — would be comfortable working with.

So my pessimistic take in mid-September seems to have been unwarranted and impatient. It was never going to go off flawlessly, and this is a huge step forward. Now we just have to see how the results are greeted and whether the new democratic government can bring enough change to the country to lend it the public confidence required to endure. If it does work out, it will still go down as one of the fastest, smoothest, most direct transitions from military to democratic civilian rule in African history, to the best of my knowledge.

Hope springs eternal.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.