Mali: France’s Chadian proxies to battle Tuaregs?

For days we have been wondering about the fate of Kidal, the last town in northern Mali that remains under rebel control. Unless you are paying close attention, you would not know that the rebels in Kidal are not jihadists—they are secular Tuareg separatists of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), who took the town from the local jihadist faction, Ansar Dine, at the same time that combined French and Malian forces were driving the jihadists from Timbuktu and Gao last month. French-led forces reportedly captured Kidal’s airport last week but have held back on entering the town itself—an implicit acknowledgement of the sensitive situation, a desire to avoid opening a new insurgency with the MNLA but also to stop short of allowing them a zone of control. Now the French military says it is 1,800 soldiers from Chad that have entered Kidal. An astute choice.

The Chadians were doubtless chosen because it was hoped that, unlike the Malian forces, they would not offend the MNLA’s separatist principles, nor, unlike the French themselves, their anti-imperialist ones. Yet it is clear the Chadians are acting as French proxies. Notes the BBC‘s Mark Dolye: “Battle-hardened and used to desert conditions, the Chadians are not part of the West African force that has been gathering in southern Mali to support the government army. The Chadians are, rather, directly backing their French allies.”

It remains to be seen if French-Malian control over Timbuktu and Gao will be challenged by a jihadist insurgency. AP reports Feb. 9 that Malian troops are still “fighting jihadists in their desert hideouts just outside Gao,” and one day earlier a suicide bomber blew himself up at a checkpoint on the city’s outskirts. He didn’t manage to kill anyone other than himself, but a second would-be suicide martyr was later stopped at a checkpoint near the city. A follow-up AP report cites locals to the effect that the young militant who blew himself up had ties to renegade AQIM leader Moktar Belmoktar. MUJAO, the militia that controlled Gao, was the jihadist faction with the closest ties to AQIM, al-Qaeda’s North African franchise.

The French have reportedly lost only one soldier in the Mali operation so far. Al Jazeera informs is that two Malian soldiers and four civilians have been killed by landmines in fighting with what Paris called “residual jihadists” in the reclaimed territory. Some villages around Gao “continue to support the rebels,” according to unnamed French and Malian security sources.

CNN on Jan. 26 quoted the head of the Pentagon’ Africa Command, Gen. Carter Ham, speaking at Howard University in Washington about the situation in Mali: “Territorial integrity of Mali is non-negotiable. No discussion of a separatist state or something like that. But it also appears that Mali has asked for, and will need, some help to establish government control in the north. Realistically, we would all like to see the elimination of al-Qaeda and others from northern Mali. Realistically, probably the best you can get is containment and disruption, so that al-Qaeda is no longer able to control territory as they do today. This must be in fact and in perception an African-led endeavor that is done at the request of the Malian government, and I think that is well under way now.”

The quote is interesting as much for what is doesn’t say as what it does. The reference to the “non-negotiable” nature of Mali’s “territorial integrity” is pretty clearly aimed at the MNLA, but he doesn’t explicitly name them since it is much easier for propaganda purposes to conflate all the rebel forces as “al-Qaeda.” And the extremely telling line “in fact and in perception” necessarily implies that the perception must be maintained even if the facts demonstrate otherwise.