Islamist insurgents, primarily from the Tuareg, a nomadic people, have been declaring jihad against what government exists in one of the harshest terrains in the world. The Sahara and Sahel make Afghanistan look like a summer camp. This is the land of 1,000′ sand dunes and tiny oases, and dusty, remote towns like Timbuktu, the legendary end of the line in 19th Century literature. Beyond Timbuktu there was nothing but endless desert for thousands of miles.
The Land of the Tuareg is called Tinariwen and extends from the inner deserts of Libya to those of Niger, Mali, Chad, Algeria, Burkina Faso, and Nigeria.Other tribes are allied with or subject to the Tuareg in these regions. The Tuareg have been in an almost constant state of war and rebellion against first the Western colonial powers, and the national governments in each of the aforementioned countries.
Starting in 2006/2008 radical Islamists, including some influenced by Al Qaeda, began to proselytize in Tinariwen. The Tuareg have always been extremely conservative. They are sometimes still involved in the slave trade even now. This is a pre-colonial African society, with some parallels to Afghanistan, I might add.
Tinariwen’s is among the driest climates in the world. The oases are life, and control of the oases is political power. While Saudi Arabia has its oil wealth and modern cities Tinariwen has no riches and is largely barren. It is even more tribal and more remote. A united Tinariwen would be larger than any country in Africa, including the formerly united Sudan.
The distances are vast and the ability to govern such a large area almost impossible. However, the attack on the gas processing plant in Algeria and rapid collapse of resistance in Mali point to a much larger problem. It isn’t a failed state. It’s a never had a state state.
In most countries the effort to relocate and anchor nomadic peoples has been a primary objective. Smuggling, banditry and rebellion are much more prevalent where there are no police or state controls. Virtually every one of the states where the Tuareg live have waged harsh wars of suppression with only limited success ever since their Independence in the 1960’s.
Now, with failed and dysfunctional states all around and the power of the word of the Prophet as interpreted by Al Qaeda, along with an infusion of modern weapons from Libya the Tuareg in the West see the opportunity to break away from governments to revert to purely tribal governance.
The West sees Al Qaeda training camps in the deep desert but at the same time the desert is the greatest enemy. Water is survival. Control of the oases is power. This is real live French Foreign Legion 1,000′ sand dune desert and hard Sahel scrubland where the nearest water could be 100 miles. the caravans have been plying the same routes for 1,000 years because of the same need for water.
While the first reaction of the military may be to bomb and strafe the jihadis it might be better to negotiate with the leaders. The Tuareg councils of elders are ancient and formalized to a far greater degree than in Afghanistan or Iraq with much less corruption. When you have nothing, there is nothing to steal.
This is not Lawrence of Arabia or one of Delacroix’s paintings or Afghanistan or any other desert war. It is probably a uniquely unnecessary war if properly handled. Much of the problem is in the actions of corrupt central governments. Even the crisis with Boko Haram in Nigeria is different. The Tuareg are in Nigeria, but they are not of Nigeria.
One of the critical mistakes make in Iraq and Afghanistan was simple hubris. We did not and do not have the T.E. Lawrences and Richard Warburtons who know the inhabitants intimately and are accepted by both sides. We seek to impose top down solutions and spend billions of dollars on a constantly revolving and changing set of priorities because it is our way.
The conflict in Mali is in its early stages. Let us hope after 11 years of constant warfare that somehow, someone comes to their senses. Expansion of this war will spread from country to country if we do not.