Mali is so obscure to the Western world that if you google the name of its president, Amadou Toumani Touré, you only get 202,000 entries, about the same as a mid-level well known American. The country has been afflicted by a civil war for long stretches of the past few decades, most notably from 1990 to 1996, but no one in the US has much noticed. Coverage of the political situation is particularly lacking. So I have been reading Roger Kaplan’s dispatches from Mali for the Weekly Standard, most notably a feature in the current issue, with great attention. As a French speaker with long experience in Africa, Kaplan comes with some credentials. And my knowledge of Mali is fragmentary and way out of date—I was first and last there in 1989.
Unfortunately, Kaplan’s piece “Mischief in Mali” seems more likely to perpetuate American ignorance of what is going on in this part of the world than to dispel it. And because our military is involved, it seems important to critique Kaplan’s reasoning.
Kaplan is surprisingly unsympathetic to the grievances of Mali’s Tuareg people. His article dismisses the Azawad National Liberation movement as “a circumstantial ally” of al-Qaeda, but neither Kaplan nor anyone else has put forth any evidence that the Tuareg—non-Arabs who speak an entirely different language and are considered by Islamic purists to be barely Muslim—are involved with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM). Yet it is under this pretext that the US is training the Malian Defense Forces. (Kaplan went to Mali on an embed with a brigade from the New York National Guard.)
The nomadic Tuareg, who traditionally have mainly earned their livelihoods as herders in Mali’s desert north, have long craved some form of self-rule, as well as the right to use their own language in their schools and region, and it is disingenuous for Kaplan to say that it is hard to say “whether there really is a Tuareg national movement.” Even the State Department’s Mali profile acknowledges that the Tuareg have been fighting for autonomy and to preserve their way of life since independence in 1960.
As usual with such rebellions, economic motivations play a role. In recent decades, drought and desertification have eroded the Tuaregs’ already precarious way of life. Kaplan notes the expansion of cotton cultivation in Mali, but does not explore how this development could have different effects for the north than it does for the south. Cotton is a notoriously thirsty crop, one responsible for the draining of the Ural Sea and the desertification of parts of Uzbekistan, another big producer. It is unclear how direct a political impact the three million cotton farmers in the south have had (or will) as they expend the water resources of the north, but the issue could be a justifiable point of contention for the Tuareg.
And no matter what one decides on the legitimacy of the Tuareg grievances, it is by no means clear that the US is doing the right thing by—it seems—helping the Malian Defense Forces (MDF) put down their rebellion. This is not, say, the IDF.
It does not seem to bother Kaplan that the Songhai, an ethnic group in northern Mali that opposes the Tuareg, have their own militia and, as Kaplan admits, support hard-liners in the MDF. Are we are doing the right thing with the MDF? Or are we taking sides in a battle that has nothing to do with international terrorism threats or the interests of the US? Kaplan does not appear to seek out any Tuareg spokesmen for their take on the situation and seems to accept an implicit US narrative of counterterrorism that is never substantiated.
Kaplan has written sympathetically of the Kabyles of Algeria elsewhere, yet he fails to mention that the Tuareg are from the very same ethno-linguistic group, the Amazigh, what outsiders call “Tuareg” in the desert and “Berber” in the settled lands. They speak and write an ancient, non-Arabic language, and are themselves divided into several tribes. In his much more interesting writing about Algeria for the American Spectator (for instance, his February 18, 2011 piece “An Arab Spring?”), Kaplan seems to know full well what the Amazigh in Algeria are and to sympathize with their activists, notably Ferhat Mehenni, whom he and I both know.
Kaplan misleadingly refers to the Tuareg as numbering about a half million in Mali and another half million in Algeria and Niger, without noting that they are part of the same larger ethnic group of the Amazigh (or Berber) who span northern and western Africa. The Amazigh are numerically far more significant, comprising a third of the population of Algeria, a majority of the population of Morocco (whose king is half Amazigh), and perhaps ten percent of the population of Libya. While Tuareg and Amazigh speak different dialects of Tamazight, it is the same language, just as Mexican and Castilian Spanish are the same.
Finally, Kaplan’s critique of the Libyan revolution, paraphrasing the president of Niger’s warning that “the unintended consequences of the Libyan crisis would include the seizure of power in Benghazi and Tripoli by Islamist extremists,” seems to be part of his general state of denial about why people take to arms. Kaplan speaks of “political violence—that of the Tuareg or AQIM or any other group,” as though the two groups’ goals had anything in common, and then goes on to claim that the “root causes of violence are violent men” not “social or economic conditions.” This would surely surprise the makers of our own revolution, not to mention the middle aged lawyers, men as well as women, who made the Libyan revolution. Without having up-to-date knowledge of Mali firsthand, it is hard for me to endorse the Tuareg rebellion. I can’t say whether the Tuareg of Mali would be better served by their own state, an autonomous region, or more representation in Mali’s economic decisionmaking. But I question why the US is helping the MDF to supress what might be a legitimate movement—and why Kaplan won’t ask harder questions about this involvement.