A House is a Grave: Sahel situation analysis.
A man lives in his wife’s tent: a house is a grave. -Tuareg proverb
Précis: as the first phase of the Mali conflict winds down, we see a partial recapitulation of other guerrilla wars in the Sahel. Expelled from Algeria, Ansar Dine has emerged as the major player, the hub around which MUJAO, AQIM and other Islamic groups have coalesced and merged into the local populations. As France withdraws troops, Algeria returns to geopolitical prominence in the region, a brute force (and largely counterproductive) bulwark against Islamism. America returns to its bad habits, having seemingly learned nothing from Afghanistan.
Does the USA have strategic interests in the Sahel? If so, how might we best serve those interests? Let Mali’s fall from grace show what happens when the veneer of democracy is pasted onto rotten boards. The nations of the Sahel are going from bad to worse: their wretched poverty and malgovernance are of a piece, a vacuum into which jihaad has moved with a vengeance as it has moved into many other such vacuums.
Africa must save itself. Does America have a role to play in that salvation? I cannot say. This much I do know: the USA appears to be repeating previous mistakes. Therefore, I predict, with considerable anger and sadness, the tragedy of Afghanistan will be writ large in the Sahel, across many nations in an area larger than the United States.
The Curious Case of Pierre Camatte
On 25 November 2009, a French citizen, Pierre Camatte was kidnapped from the Malian city of Ménaka near the border with Niger Republic. According to Temedt, the Tuareg human rights organisation, Ménaka is a city where a master-slave relationship exists between the Tuareg and the ikelan.
Pierre Camatte was given to the AQIM, specifically to Abdelhamid Abou Zeïd, directly responsible for the beheading of Edwin Dyer, a British tourist. Dyer had been kidnapped along with two Swiss citizens and a German.
AQIM is in the business of kidnapping for ransom and has been for some time. But Pierre Camatte was different. Within days of Camatte’s kidnapping, AQIM demanded the release of four prisoners held in Mali within 20 days. Mali’s president caved immediately, with considerable prodding from that spineless git, then-president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy. Algeria and Mauritania were outraged, withdrawing their ambassadors from Mali, for two of those prisoners were Algerian and one was Mauritanian.
The writing was on the wall. France had blinked and pushed Mali to act against its own best interests. France should have been roundly condemned for negotiating with terrorists to save its own. For all the happy talk about Mali being the poster child for democracy in the Sahel, Mali’s fate was sealed in that moment. Emboldened by this capitulation, the Islamists moved immediately, seizing vast tracts of northern Mali.
Most of the rest you know. The USA certainly understood what the Camatte incident meant at the time.
How America Reacted
Though Americans were seriously involved in Mali during the 1990s, after the 9/11 attacks, the US established a program called the Pan-Sahel Initiative. Predictably, as in dozens of other such training efforts, the blowback was horrible. If anything, ham-handed efforts to curb Islamism only created more resentment.
We know how all that worked out in Mali: the military overthrew the civilian government and now commits atrocities in the current blow-up.
To which General Carter Ham, US Army AFRICOM commander responded on January 24:
“We have had a U.S. training effort with the Malian armed forces for some number of years,” he said. “Some of that has occurred in Mali, and some of that was Malian officers coming to the U.S. for training, to include, Captain [Amadou] Sanogo, who led the military coup which overthrew the constitutionally-elected government.”
“[This is] very worrisome for us,” Ham said. “So we looked at that, and we asked ourselves these questions: First of all, did we miss the signs that this was happening? And was there anything that we did in our training that could have been done differently, perhaps, and have caused a different outcome?”
The general said he believes the answer is “a little bit of both.”
From a purely military standpoint, Ham said, U.S. forces focused Malian training almost exclusively on tactical and technical matters such as operating equipment, improving tactical effectiveness and aerial re-supply to remote bases.
“All of which is very, very good,” he said. “We didn’t spend, probably, the requisite time focusing on values, ethics and military ethos.”
“When you put on the uniform of your nation, then you accept the responsibility to defend and protect that nation, to abide by the legitimate civilian authority that has been established,” Ham said.
Additionally, he said, military members should act lawfully and see themselves as servants to the people of their nation.
“We didn’t … [train] that to the degree that we needed to, I think,” Ham said. “I believe that we focused exclusively on tactical and technical [aspects]. So we’ve learned from that.”
No. We didn’t learn anything.
Contractors Gone Wild
BANGOR, ME—Derek Michael Stansberry, a U.S. citizen and resident of Riverview, Fla., was charged today in a criminal complaint in the District of Maine with interfering with flight crew members and willfully making false threats about an explosive device on an aircraft, U.S. Attorney Paula D. Silsby announced.
WASHINGTON – An Ambien-gobbling passenger busted for saying he had explosives on a flight was an ex-Air Commando and decorated war vet with a top security clearance, the Daily News has learned.
The arrest Tuesday of contractor Derek Stansberry, 27, of Easthampton, Mass., for interfering with a flight crew and false threats also cracked open a window on obscure U.S. counterterror operations in West Africa.
He worked for Eatontown, N.J.-based R4 Inc., which provides military services to U.S. Africa Command, command spokesman Vince Crawley said.
Stansberry had a Top Secret-Sensitive Compartmented Information clearance when he left the Air Force after four years last June following duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Capt. Lisa Citino of the shadowy 1st Special Operations Wing.
He was an intelligence airman with the elite 4th Special Operations Squadron “Ghostriders,” who fly AC-130 Spooky gunships, Citino confirmed.
R4 officials refused to comment on Stansberry or their operations in the impoverished West African nation of Burkina Faso, where he was based.
Get ready, folks. Steel yourselves. Here comes the punch line.
BANGOR, Maine — A former Air Force intelligence specialist who claimed to have explosives aboard a trans-Atlantic flight suffered from a brief psychotic break caused by a lack of sleep, dehydration, stress and body-building substances, and is free to resume his life because he’s not a threat, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.
The judge found Derek Stansberry, 27, of Riverview, Fla., not guilty by reason of insanity on charges stemming from his actions aboard the April 27, 2010, Paris-to-Atlanta flight that was forced to land at Bangor International Airport.
“It’s something that no one expected to happen [and] most importantly that no one expects will happen again,” defense lawyer Walter McKee of Augusta said after the hearing in federal court.
And from WaPo’s followup:
OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — The U.S. military is expanding its secret intelligence operations across Africa, establishing a network of small air bases to spy on terrorist hideouts from the fringes of the Sahara to jungle terrain along the equator, according to documents and people involved in the project.
At the heart of the surveillance operations are small, unarmed turboprop aircraft disguised as private planes. Equipped with hidden sensors that can record full-motion video, track infrared heat patterns, and vacuum up radio and cellphone signals, the planes refuel on isolated airstrips favored by African bush pilots, extending their effective flight range by thousands of miles.
About a dozen air bases have been established in Africa since 2007, according to a former senior U.S. commander involved in setting up the network. Most are small operations run out of secluded hangars at African military bases or civilian airports.
The nature and extent of the missions, as well as many of the bases being used, have not been previously reported but are partially documented in public Defense Department contracts. The operations have intensified in recent months, part of a growing shadow war against al-Qaeda affiliates and other militant groups. The surveillance is overseen by U.S. Special Operations forces but relies heavily on private military contractors and support from African troops.
In 2010, Abdelkader Messahel, Algeria’s Minister Delegate for African and Maghreb Affairs declared:
“Demanding ransoms is an al Qaeda strategy, Payment of ransoms is a way to finance terrorism. We know that most of the terrorist activity in the Sahel is possible because of the ransom money.”
Algeria is engaged in its own proxy war against Morocco, supporting the Polisario Front, composed of various Sahrawi people. Sahrawi just means “desert people”and their culture resembles the Tuareg in some respects. And like the Tuareg, they’ve engaged in slaving and drug running.
Though the aging gerontocracy in Algeria supports the idea of Sahrawi independence, they will never accept Tuareg autonomy. Qadhafi had backed Tuareg independence, promised them aid of all sorts if they would fight for him. While Qadhafi lived, relations were good, for Qadhafi supported the Polisario Front too. Algeria had allowed Qadhafi to move military equipment through their territory. Libya closed its borders with Algeria but relations are improving with Libya.
It is instructive to note Qadhafi’s children and hangers-on ran away to Algeria. Now they’re leaving Algeria. They’ve been hanging around Niger, spending money and suchlike, but Niger gave them the bum’s rush. No telling where they’ll end up.
Though it’s done a great deal to fight Islamic terrorism, Algeria has failed to stamp out militancy. Algeria has the best military in the area and by far the best intelligence operation. Algeria’s goal was to make them someone else’s problem by evicting them — into Mali, mostly. Many of the current Islamist groups, notably AQIM began as insurgents in Algeria.
There’s no tidying up the Tuareg insurgency and it’s been ongoing since colonial times. There’s no point in me slinging acronyms like MUJAO and AQIM and the Signed in Blood battalion, etc. That’s just factoid generation, informing nothing. I’d rather address Ansar Dine as a set of policy domains.
Ansar Dine is a locus for Tuareg insurgency. It was co-opted by Islamist groups, many led by outsiders from Algeria and Mauritania. It remains the only viable interlocutor for the Tuareg in terms of a solution for Mali and the larger Sahel. Ansar Dine is centred on the city of Kidal in the far north of Mali and Alghabass Ag Intalla is emerging as its chief spokesman.
The Tuareg are nomadic people. For them, a house is a grave. As such, they’re not a majority anywhere. National borders mean nothing to the Tuareg. They’ve got internal problems with crime and the issue of slavery, problems they haven’t addressed. They’re interdependent with their erstwhile slaves and many other tribes.
If this were a just world, the Tuareg would have a measure of autonomy. Like the Kurds and Pashtun, they haven’t been given a country of their own. Even if they had a nation of their own, they’d be just another landlocked mess. Niger and Burkina Faso have negotiated long and hard with the Tuareg. Both nations have come to terms with the Tuareg: both have established regions where the Tuareg have some autonomy. The Tuareg, though I’ve said many horrible (and absolutely true) things about them, deserve some special treatment as nomads. There aren’t many nomadic cultures left in the world. The Tuareg have been more sinned-against than sinners, though there’s a gracious plenty on the Sinner Side of the balance sheet.
The Tuareg have their animistic beliefs which they’ve mixed with Islam. Most of the leaders of this Islamic revolt are not even Tuareg. Any sensible approach to the issues of Africa must be guided by the identities of these wildly disparate tribes and clans. At its heart, the struggle for the Sahel is not religious. The religious troublemakers are imported, funded from the outside, certainly not seen as intrinsically bound to the struggle. They’re just “there to help” — which puts these Islamist agents provocateurs in the same predicament as the USA’s misguided policy of training up these rogue military units.
Tuareg women own the tents. Men own houses. As the Tuareg move off the desert and into these flypecked towns, they’ve become more patriarchal and more Islamic. It’s a terrible thing to see Tuareg in town. The Black People hate them. The Tuareg are like great predatory animals in some filthy zoo, tragic, ghostly figures, echoes of America’s Apache people, also nomads and raiders.
I’m good at pointing out problems, not so good at furnishing solutions. Sometimes I come across as if I understand this stuff. I don’t. It’s all research, guided by sensibilities established long ago, when Tuareg caravans would come out of the desert past our house, their camels snarling, bells jingling, saddles creaking, the people astride them as naturally as if they were born on them. As often as I saw them, I never knew the Tuareg. Nobody knew them, really. The Hausa would trade with them. Every so often we’d see one turn up at the clinic, I remember one girl, her arm smashed by a camel bite.
America can’t do anything in this situation. We’ve meddled too much already. We had the good sense to stay off the ground in Libya. We’d better stay out of the air in the Sahel. It seems the USA is planning on building another drone base in Niger and it’s a bad move.
There is no Malian state nor will there be in the near term. The French pulled out the tent poles on Mali: let them deal with the fallout.
The USA might have some humanitarian interests in the Sahel. I cannot see the USA having any strategic interests. We’re already waist deep in this mess and have been for decades. Our influence has been counterproductive in extremis.
Does America in its hubris thinks it’s going to change Africa for the better? Dream on. Afghanistan was bad. The Sahel will be worse.