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By teaming with Al Qaida, the Tuaregs invited the French invasion of Northern Mali

Special to WorldTribune.com

By Brian M Downing

A rebellion in Mali that might have otherwise excited little interest commanded international attention when word came of its hardline Islamist nature and, more importantly, its ties to Al Qaida in the Maghreb (AQIM).

In recent days, French, Malian, and other African troops have launched attacks into Northern Mali and have met with considerable early success. The U.S. is thus far providing only airlift and intelligence assistance.

The alliance between AQIM and the Tuareg people of Northern Mali and adjacent lands is a curious one. The Tuareg have a long history of opposing encroaching peoples – Arabs in the seventh century, French in the nineteenth.

Their aim, then as now, is regional autonomy. This sets them apart from Al Qaida proper, whose aim is to restore Muslim greatness, and also from AQIM, whose aim is to win control of Algeria, which they feel the Algerian military denied them by seizing power in 1992.

The Tuareg see AQIM as an ally in their cause, but the latter is more of a burden because it brings regional and international opposition to the Tuareg movement for autonomy. Instead of bringing needed help to the Tuareg, AQIM is bringing a formidable invasion. Realization of the overwhelming opposition before them may be behind the recent split in the Tuareg forces, which will hopefully reduce the bloodshed and lead to meaningful talks.

The 2011 rebellion put an immense amount of territory into Tuareg hands, which now places them in the unfamiliar position of having to establish defensive positions and fight in a more or less conventional manner, at least at present.

The Tuareg served in Gadhafi’s army against rebel forces in 2011 and acquitted themselves quite well. Despite NATO tactical air strikes, the disruption of logistical support, and increasingly effective opposition, the Tuareg soldiered on. When Gadhafi fell and his battle-proven mercenaries fled to the south – taking Libyan arms caches with them – regional powers and security analysts shuddered.

The Tuareg now face the conventional forces of France, Mali, Togo, Nigeria, Guinea, and other states whose tactical expertise, weaponry, and air power are vastly superior to anything the Tuareg possess or have faced. While the Tuareg have superior knowledge of the terrain, they cannot hold defensive positions and are presently fleeing population centers.

This leaves them the option of guerrilla warfare, with Tuareg bands fighting occupying forces just as they did the French for decades in the colonial period.

Much of the terrain of Northern Mali and adjacent lands is flat, open, and arid, which in decades past could serve as a vast sanctuary that enemy forces would enter reluctantly and leave eagerly. Some colonial incursions were never heard from again. Those engagements, however, took place well before the advent of helicopter gunships, fighters, and drones, which can perform reconnaissance over huge swathes of land and rain destruction on guerrilla bands.

This leaves mountain redoubts in northeast Mali and southern Algeria from which guerrillas can occasionally sortie and launch bombing attacks on French and other countries’ interests in the region. This is what their al Shabazz counterparts have come to after many years of controlling parts of Somalia, where they gradually lost the support of locals who now accept outside troops – an object lesson in handling Al Qaida, perhaps.

The foreign incursion into Northern Mali and the split in the Tuareg ranks offer hope that a negotiated settlement may come about.

Unless the outside forces are prepared to occupy Northern Mali for years and maybe decades to come, they should be amenable to, and even insistent upon, brokering an agreement between the Malian government and the Tuareg rebels, the broad contours of which are regional autonomy in exchange for breaking with AQIM and reining in their own troops.

The outside forces must also show restraint in their use of superior arms. Indiscriminate firepower has led to needless casualties and firmer opposition in countless insurgencies from Indochina to ongoing ones.

Malian troops are reportedly already engaged in summary executions as they drive north. This will only lead to a longer, bloodier conflict and to lingering hostilities between Sub-Saharan Africans and the Tuaregs.

Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst and author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at brianmdowning@gmail.com.

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