Mission Accomplished, Part Deux?

3 02 2013

mission-accomplishedYes We Can?

The French rightly pride themselves on having inspired American remakes like “the Dinner for Schmucks” and “True Lies.” They also rightfully complain that Americans always spoiled the artistic touch in the original movies. For once the roles are reversed in real life and not on cinema reels. The French remake being shot now in Mali of the 2003 ‘Mission Accomplished” flick starring George W. Bush does not, thus far, show any promise of improving on the American original action drama.

Credit should be given when due, Mr Hollande’s decision to put boots on the ground is a responsible choice– better late than never. However, the real question today is: does France have a credible exit strategy that does not result in another botched war in Northern MaliPresident Hollande’s PR-minded visit to Mali’s liberated north along with the nation’s interim President Dioncounda Traoré felt like a an eery replay of George W. Bush’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” moment aboard a US aircraft carrier. While Mr Hollande and his host were prudent not to declare the fight against Jihadis over, they had more rhetoric than concretes to offer as an assessment of the current situation. Most media stories reported the event without really questioning the next phases in the conflict.

Just as in 2003, Hollande echoed Bush’s pledges of grandiose plans for rebuilding Iraq. Like the images of Iraqis tearing down Saddam’s statue in 2003, footage of effusive and jubilant locals praising Mr Hollande and their liberators has been rolling on cable news channels around globe. A weak and temporary fill-in until Mali resumes its democratic regime interrupted by military coups, Mr Taroré did not have much to say about reconciliation with the North other than a vague willingness to negotiate with the MNLA. Behind the smiles, and the photos ops, no concrete plan seems to exist to fix Mali’s multidimensional failures.

On the security front, the draw down of France’s 3000 troops has already been decided. the official line is that ECOWAS troops will support Malian troops hereon forward. The United States has pledged $10 Million Dollars to help train Mali’s army. this being the same army that melted in battle last winter when Jihadis took it head on, one cannot help but wonder whether this check is a buy-out option from a hopeless task? Whatever the answer is, it is imperative that the Malian army be continuously supervised lest its undisciplined troops engage in yet another round of vigilante retribution against civilians they deem to be in cahoots with the enemy.

As of January 20, only 450 out of the 4500 ECOWAS troops pledged were already on Malian soil. Almost half are from Chad, the rest are spread between Nigeria, Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Benin and Togo. Of course, the devil is in the details; Benin sent policemen, and Ghana sent combat engineers — neither are exactly frontline combat troops. Of course, these numbers increased in the last 10 days but the questions remain valid: other than Nigeria’s and Chad’s troops, how soon can we expect that this mishmash can be forged into a credible fighting force?

Speaking of mishmash and cultural references, experience in Iraq and Afghanistan show that any foreign troops have a very short time window to adapt to local cultures and traditions. Sub-saharan troops are not an exception to this rule. Just as their Western counterparts in the past decade, they are entering into an alien culture whose intricacies and codes they must quickly grasp or risk being seen by locals as a serious nuisance in their lives. After all, who could forget how quickly Iraqis’ shouts of “Thank you America” turned into “down down America”?

Conspicuously absent when the going got rough, Europe’s leaders seem all too content to have dodged another war they could avoid. Of course, they pledged 50 Million Euros to fund the African contingent being deployed in Mali and to send trainers. Decidedly, the European Union is a coalition of the amnesiacs. over a decade, Western European nations diligently filled terrorist coffers with ransom money to free EU hostages. Way above the $100 Million mark, that money went a long way in helping Jihadis buy arms and train future terrorists. Consequently, the onus of showing responsible leadership remains on EU member countries. They should, at least, triple their financial and military assistance to France. if not for their own security, it is a step on the way to repair the damage their policies caused to Mali and the region’s security. Their credibility and commitment to combat international terrorism depends on it.

With Jihadis melting in nature, and quickly disappearing in the depth of the Sahara, France, African nations, and the world at large are better served by some candor: there are not enough troops on the ground. Mr Hollande does not yet have an exit strategy, Mali’s military and governance require years to rebuild. After the joy recedes, the people freshly liberated in northern Mali will be expecting all the rosy promises made to them to be fulfilled. For that to happen, the international community should follow France’s lead and shoulder its part of the responsibility. Anything short of a full Bosnia-style UN mission in northern Mali can not be a serious response to a an equally serious problem. For the sake of peace, we can only hope that today l’impossible n’est pas Français!





A Disaster 50 Years in The Making

20 01 2013

Tuareg Woman

Mali’s problems did not start with the fall of Libya’s Qadhafi. They started even before it gained independence from France. A diverse set of ethnic groups were forced to coexist without much thought of the immense potential for conflict caused by that arrangement. France’s 25th hour short-legged attempt at Shock and Awe is potentially a doomed effort because it is a decade late. Relying on inept militaries, and hoping to win a guerilla warfare without a credible strategy is a defeat waiting to happen. A decade into wars of pacification, Western nations should resist the urge to fight in yet another war without fully thinking through the consequences– potentially disastrous. None of this is an argument to look the other way on the spread of Jihadism, it is a call to think, then act decisively. Too much is at stake.

Unlike some writings popping up with depressing regularity in English-language media, the current Mali crisis pre-dates Qadhafi’s demise, and even the appearance of Jihadis in the territory in 2003. In fact, Mali’s internal problems started even before it gained its independence from France. Azawadis sought desperately to have their own state when it became apparent that France was intent on abandoning the French Sudan. They latched on the mirage of the Common Organization of Saharan Regions (OCRS) created by the January 10, 1957 French law.

The OCRS covered areas in today’s Algeria, Mali, Niger, and Chad. Had it been retained, it would have been an Amazigh-majority state with considerable Arab, Songhai and Toubou pluralities. The project however had another purpose altogether: divide and conquer. it was a French ruse aimed at Algeria’s then independence rebellion led by the FLN. The idea was to keep the northern part of the territory as French, and offer the rest the option of independence.

Once Mali became independent, it took only 2 years for the first Azawad rebellion to break out in 1962. Triggered by their opposition to the then-dictator Modibu Keita’s socialist policies, the Azawadis took to arms starting a tradition of defeating Bamako militarily that lasts till today.

That episode’s trauma still lives today in their minds; Keita’s army resorted to a two-year collective punishment campaign against the Azawadi population to offset their military defeats.

Entire areas were emptied of their populations. Long forced marches claimed the lives of hundreds, not to mention those shot because of their kinship with rebels, or the suspicion of being rebels themselves. By the time the revolt was crushed, the region had lost most of its charismatic leaders to war, or repression.

Azawadis troubles were only compounded by a combination of Bamako’s brand of dirt-poor socialism and the 1968 droughts that decimated their cattle– just as it did Mauritania and Niger. Overnight, they became a destitute famished population. Dying by the thousands in their land of hunger, they began to migrate to the neighboring countries. The sight of clear-skinned beggar children wandering the streets a in big cities as far as Cotonou became common. It was at that time they found a sanctuary in Libya which began a utilitarian relationship ultimately ending with Qadhafi’s fall in 2011.

Used as canon fodder in Qadhafi’s foreign adventures in Chad, and brief clashes with Sudan and Tunisia,  the Azawadi diaspora found work, housing and an income they desperately needed. Their remittances to their families and clans back in Mali offset the abject poverty resulting from Mali’s failed governance and the climatic changes that wiped out their traditional sources of wealth.

In the meantime, Moussa Traoré’s dictatorial reign over all Malians continued the trend of stagnation and impoverishment in all of Mali, not just Azawad. By the time he was deposed, the seeds of revolt planted by his predecessor were ready to harvest. An armed insurrection broke out from 1990-1995. Another one followed in the next decade, this time under a democratically elected government from 2007-2009. New-old Azawadi tribal and wanna-be chiefs have begun to learn another important lesson: if you fight Bamako, sooner or later, you will be recognized Primus enter pares.

In both instances, agreements were signed between Bamako and Azawadis promising to improve the livelihood in the north, the end of discriminatory policies and integrating some northerners in the state army. Both agreements, brokered with the help of foreign powers, broke down because of the faulty assumption behind them. These were arrangements where Azawadi chieftains were asked to accept remaining Malians in exchange for services Bamako offered as incentives for allegiance.

For too long, a lot of conspiracy theorists and crackpots have been spreading myths about Mali’s travails. According to them, Algeria’s military intel service DRS has been masterminding simpleton Jihadis. Even more predictably, said crackpots see America’s hand under every rock, and caressing the back of every lizard running the Sahara desert. Sniffing for oil, and Uranium and other resources said to be under the arid desert.

A new false concept gaining currency these days is the notion that Mali’s collapse is the bastard child of the Nato intervention in Libya. Sorry, but that does not even begin to explain the total collapse of Malian governance by the time Azawadis took to arms in early 2012. A considerable segment of the local population was not aloof to living in a free independent Azawad. They did not begin to grumble until they realized that they were in essence trading one occupation for another.

By the time Qadhafi’s regime in Libya fell, northern Mali had been home to Jihadi elements that left Algeria a decade earlier after being thoroughly defeated in the civil war. By 2002, remnants of Algeria’s GIA found sanctuary behind the borders away from their nemesis the Algeria’s army. They were also attracted by the allure of making easy money by partnering in the flourishing Saharan smuggling commerce. Drugs, tobacco, weapons and stolen cars provided a lucrative alternative to war.

Jihadis made new and strange bedfellows in that period. Mali, Algeria, Mauritania and Senegal army officers started to skim off the new source of wealth. Getting a cut from the smuggling revenues in exchange for looking the other way was the the policy for almost a decade. Jihadis venture capitalism extended to an even more lucrative business: kidnapping western hostages all over the Sahara yielded over 90 Million Euros over a decade. Unlike the conspiracy theorists and snake oil merchants claim, things are a tad more complex in reality, and at times, even more unflattering to our world’s big powers.

Time and again, European nations chose to negotiate, and pay ransom money. Germany, Italy, Spain, France cut deals with hostage takers not thinking much of it. After all, Europe’s politicians thought the savages were deep in the Sahara and did not pose much of a threat beyond their forsaken deserts. Or at best, let the Malians deal with them. Complacency was Europe’s strategy.

Slowly but surely, the region became a Jihadi Eldorado. The modus operandi was very simple: why get killed trying to create an Islamist emirate in “apostate-ruled” neighboring countries when you can build your own sanctuary AND have the West pay for it? Even better, now that you are flush with cash, blend into the local communities. Those whom you cannot buy, you marry. To Azawadis the offering was: Bamako cannot build you a water well? Here’s a cash wad of Euros, go build it yourself.

Once the nexus was set up, there was no going back. The joint Franco-Mauritanian operations of 2010 and 2011 were just grandiose hostage release operations. By then, the United States had been pursuing its own classical approach of throwing money at problems it cannot deal with. Development programs were set up in Mali to reward the democratic progress. Military assistance in the form of training for the Malian military was ongoing. The US even tried very hard to get the neighboring countries to start a meaningful cooperation.

Algerians were miffed by the suggestion that they should be told what to do about their own security. Morocco was scheming and trying to make itself relevant in a problem it has nothing to do with just to score points over Algeria. Burkina Faso and Mauritania were fighting their own covert wars by proxy. Mali’s government was doing nothing meaningful about the Jihadis in Azawad. Instead it was locked in a war of words with Mauritania’s General Aziz who seemed intent on humiliating then President Amadou Toumni Touré for daring to oppose his coup of 2008.

When it was not busy blogging from Germany on its Maghrebia news website, America’s Africa Command (Africom) in charge of the Sahel region, was in earnest trying to make sense of this maze of interests, pushing for a regional command to deal with the lawless mess that Azawad was slowly becoming.. All things considered, these efforts’ ultimate outcome is not encouraging because yet again their premise is profoundly flawed: no country around Mali, or in West Africa has the muscle, nor the will to engage in an open war which in essence is a nation-building exercise.

All of these schemes and plans became moot by the time Ansar Dine’s columns pushed south from its Azawadi sanctuary. The skeleton of an untested idea became a doctrinal principle in France’s Operation Serval: we will stop the Jihadis, but the Africans will have to go north and defeat the enemy– said France. This plan of an ECOWAS force that will spearhead the fight with the backing of the African Union, and the necessary paperwork from the UN Security Council is a recipe for disaster. Rotten and corrupt militaries, commanded by equally corrupt leaders cannot be a credible partner once the shooting starts. This line of thinking owes a lot more to post-colonial discourses than it does to the practical matter of drying out the northern Malian jihadi swamp.

The other principle complicating matters is Africa’s biggest taboo. Today, no one is willing to recognize that Mali, like most of Africa, is an artificial construct. Just like the Middle East’s levant, countries were created without much thought of whether they made sense for those destined to live in them. Ethnic groups with competing cultures were condemned to live in them. Maybe they will end up making sense in the future, but just as in Mali, that will cost a lot of blood and treasure.

Although the logical next step in Azawad’s history is independence, in practical policy terms, it is impossible to advocate for an Azawadi state now. Autonomy would be a good step in that direction, even if it’s unlikely to gain much traction in African Union meetings..

This is the compromise that any serious attempt to defeat Jihadism must include. after all, as the French learned a century earlier, the only tried and tested strategy to control that area is divide and conquer. Giving Azawadis incentives to repudiate Jihadism is the only way to go. More importantly, a purpose and a reward for their past sufferings denying Jihadis the opportunity to pose as the people’s defenders.

In plain terms, let the natives of the region do the job outsiders cannot do. Let them earn the right to decide their destiny in exchange of defeating all foreign and domestic terrorists who have infected their lives, destroyed their shrines and cut their limbs. Back those whose interest is to cut Al-Qaeda’s tentacles. Keep a credible threat of firepower in place. Keep Mali’s military under close watch, and neuter it if necessary– they have already caused more than their fair share of harm by overthrowing an elected government.

Put an offer to negotiate on the table and build smart alliances. Let diplomats talk, and keep warriors close. Feed refugees, and keep their hope of going back home soon alive. Only such a policy is likely to save lives, and defeat nihilist jihadism.

Today, hope for a better future is the only way to win a peace with honor for all the peoples of the Sahel instead of endless wars allowing criminal thugs to shape the region’s future. Capitulating to fear and age-old hatreds is not an option.





Mauritania’s Society on the Mali War: Niet!!

17 01 2013
Le radeau de la meduse

Le Radeau de la Méduse – Théodore Géricault

“Fortune, which has a great deal of power in other matters but especially in war, can bring about great changes in a situation through very slight forces.”

Julius Caesar 

Mauritanian public opinion remains dead set against their country’s involvement in Mali. Across the political and social spectrum, not a single meaningful voice called for Mauritania to intervene militarily. Worse, Mauritanian Salafis implicitly endorsed the Jihadis in Mali with an incendiary fatwa. Thus, it is no longer possible to present the Malian war as a foreign matter, it has become an internal political battle. Despite all of this, The “president” General Aziz unilaterally put the country on the path to war.

In the best tradition of a tribal chief, General Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz made a potentially fateful decision in a meeting with his French counterpart.  He told the Gauls’ chief François Hollande, that should the chief of the Malians ask for his help, he shall oblige. So is the mindset governing the country’s destiny. This should be a cause for serious concern for anyone contemplating a Mauritanian entry in the conflict.

General Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz’s meeting on Tuesday with François Hollande in Abu Dhabi shook the country’s political class out of its wait-and-see posture. Till that point, only the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood had declared -unsurprisingly- its vehement opposition to what it calls “the French invasion” of Mali.

As customary with General Aziz, he did not bother issuing any communiqués about the substance of his meeting with the French president. He even excluded his press adviser from the meeting altogether. Mauritanian state media reported the meeting as a routine discussion.  It was rather François Hollande who dropped the bombshell during this own press conference: “Mauritania is ready to take its responsibilities vis-à-vis the terrorist threat should the Malian state issue such a request.”

This 180-degree turn of positioning is symptomatic of the man’s style. After multiple public reassurances that he will not enter a war in Mali, he still went ahead and committed to enter the war once it broke out in spite of his own public opinion’s vehement objections to the move. What is his plan to deal with any fallout from his decision? That too will be improvised.

As predicted, the domestic response was swift:  all relevant opposition parties in Mauritania rejected wholesale the ongoing war in Mali. Not all of these were knee-jerk. The main opposition party, the RFD sought active measures from all political players to prevent the involvement of the army in the war. The second most important opposition, the UFP, took a softer line by supporting efforts to preserve Mali’s unity while rejecting Mauritania’s entry into the war.

More interestingly, even General Aziz’s own party barons complete silence speaks volumes about the anxiety levels in Mauritania about the Azawad war. One exception was Influential MP Sidi Ould Maham, and head of the regulatory Supreme Justice Court. He rejected the French intervention in Mali on the grounds that “Mauritania and Mali are the same country.” He must have meant to say: “the Mauritanian and Malian people are one.” ُThe most dangerous development so far came from Mauritania’s politically irrelevant Salafis. They did not miss this golden opportunity to make a stand. 39 figures signed a joint public declaration/Fatwa prohibiting and declaring anyone who assists in this war an apostate. This should be an alarm bell to any reasonable observer. Citing the Wala’ wa Albara’ doctrine is an implicit call to jihad. Even more alarming, is that one of the signatories is none other than Al-Majlissi– the allegedly repentant Mufti of Salafi Jihad.

Otherwise, it was refreshing to see condemnations of the Salafi fatwa come speedily and that they were widespread. Many columnists took them on immediately after the statement’s publication. The backlash seems to be working as one of the signatories already backed down from it.

All of these developments have in effect reframed the ongoing war in Azawad into an internal political wedge point. However, this is not merely partisan politics. It’s a deep anxiety about unleashing demons that could shake Mauritania to the core. Unfortunately, no one in Mauritanian society has taken the reasoning against the war to its honest intellectual conclusion. How come so many Mauritanian citizens are waging Jihad next door?

Maybe the answer is t0o unsettling for Mauritanians to contemplate, but it remains a question that must be addressed for the sake of the country’s peace, stability and prosperity. That would be the best help Mauritania’s foreign partners can provide: push for answers, and quickly.





Operation Serval: The View From Mauritania

15 01 2013

Image

Mali War: “Arab states might send troops.” “No thanks, we don’t need help.” by Algerian cartoonist Dilem

Four days into the French operation in Mali, Mauritania’s government has been conspicuously silent. This not at a surprise as the regime is fully aware of the public opinion’s opposition to any Mauritanian involvement in Aazawad.

Interestingly, the only on the record reaction to the operation from a political group till now has been from the Feb25 youth movement on Saturday. their statement seems representative of the Mauritanian public opinion views on the matter: they reiterated their fundamental objection to any Mauritanian involvement in the ongoing combat in Mali. it indirectly accused France of pushing Mauritania into the Malian war via General Aziz. If anything is to be retained here is that the legacy of Sarkozy’s backing of General Aziz is a serious image problem for France in Mauritania.

We completely and fundamentally reject involving our military in that war. we stress the importance of having a continuous … Of our armed forces’ mission during these unique circumstances.

We also would like to remind the ruling regime that our armed forces’ mission is limited to our national territory with the aim to defend our borders and provide security to its citizens all over the country– particularly those near the [conflict’s] hotspots.

We warn against the consequences of pushing our sons into a conflict outside of our borders fulfilling the wishes of a foreign country that has no regards for their lives, or their families’ fate. We would like to remind the regime of the dire consequences of such a decision.

I spoke to several high ranking opposition members and well-connected players off the record. Their pessimism is sobering: the war in Mali is not going to resolve the terrorist issue, in fact, it might backfire. They do not believe that France, nor the ECOWAS nations can resolve the problem through force alone.

I was told that Mali is a political quagmire: “even if the French beat off jihadis, that does not address the fundamental problem of Azawad: the inability of the Malian state over 50 years to provide services to the citizens is what made the place a fertile ground for extremism. The terrorists have cash, the state does not.” When I pushed my interlocutors on the fact that many fighters in AQIM and MUJAO are Mauritanians and that this should be an alarm bell. I was told that “there will be always nihilists around here. If this war drags on, it could be a destination to thousands of Mauritanian youth who lost all hope in their own State. Give them hope in a life in Mauritania. otherwise, they will try to go to heaven via Azawad. Or they might try to recreate their own Jihad here on Mauritanian soil. Either way, our country loses.”

On the record, Saharamedia published tonight a quick roundup of individual politicians’ views on the war. Interestingly the only one among those with a real political weight is Ahmed Ould Sidi Baba, the current chairman of the non-participatory opposition block COD. Echoing a strongly held belief that General Aziz had covertly backed the MNLA against Mali’s former President Amadou Toumani Touré, he is quoted as saying that: “things would have not gotten to where they are had it not for the involvement of General Aziz through raid into Malian territories, and his support to certain forces in Bamako, there would not have been a coup d’état against the civilian government.”

The local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood has not yet issued an official statement on the matter. Their politburo is reported to be in session tonight to formulate a position. They are the one Mauritanian formation that has the most to lose politically from any faux-pas. They are suspected by many to be sympathetic to some of the Islamist elements in Mali, in addition to their ingrained anti-western worldview.

Columnist Abbas Ould Abraham (@abbassbraham) feels that the Mauritanian involvement in the war will be in function of the intensity of France’s engagement in the operations. He further infers that the Islamist groups in Mali already anticipate a Mauritanian attack. they built strong positions in the Ouagadou woods near the border– a spot that saw a major clash in 2010 between AQIM and Mauritanian troops.

Overall, Mauritanians are not thrilled by this war. However, they are not actively opposing it. As long as their military is not involved in combat operations, and their territory is not invaded they will observe from the sidelines. Even if their territory is invaded, the public opinion will not tolerate any extended incursions inside Malian territories.

Update:

A Mauritanian soldier serving in the Lemghaity base (500 km Northeast of Zoueirate) shot himself. The soldier, according to the report , was protesting the cancellation of his leave to visit his family over 1500 km in the south in Nouakchott. This is not a good indicator of the morale of Mauritanian soldiers in light of the ongoing war next door..





Better Be A Refugee Than A Citizen?

9 01 2013

 

Image

Mauritania’s decision-maker(s) ought to look at this item published today on Saharamedia’s website: “Mauritanian citizens living in the Bassiknou district hosting Malian refugees in the Hodh Elchargui region have been apparently registering as refugees to get food assistance.”

Here, were are not dealing with a simple case of fraud. But rather with an eloquent indictment of the state of affairs in the country: an impoverished population that is living on the margins of the state, and lacking most basic services. As the world gears up to deal with the Jihadi infection next door in Azawad, it should consider learning the lessons of Azawad: if you leave a population living in abject poverty, you will undermine its immunity to radical jihadists. If said population reaches the conclusion that the State is no longer credible, then Islamism becomes a real alternative. 

Finally, we are told in the same piece that there are 200000 Malian refugees in Mauritania. The question is rather: How many Mauritanian refugees are there in Mauritania?





Crooked Sticks, Crooked Shades: A Critique

5 01 2013

Image

“Mon Dieu, gardez-moi de mes amis. Quant à mes ennemis, je m’en charge!”
Colonel Taya quoting Voltaire- in his first and last television interview ever- reacting to the news of Aziz’s 2005 coup.

One of my new years resolutions for 2013 is to write here more regularly about Mauritania instead of limiting myself to twitter as I did over the past year. I hope to help readers make sense of that area of the world as we race towards a certain war in Northern Mali. That war could have major consequences for Mauritania’s internal political crisis.

The US Ambassador to Mauritania Jo Ellen Powell gave a very little noticed talk two months ago at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C. Initially, I was excited by the prospect of hearing from her given the current state of affairs in my birth country.

US policy on Mauritania is often a matter of interpretation and speculation given that few media inquiries are made given the low level of interest in that area of the world by the public globally. Thus, seldom do we get to hear a US official’s views on Mauritania issues, let alone candid views.  I was in for a major surprise as Ambassador Powell’s remarks were an explosive mix of uninformed commentary, culturally-insensitive inexactitudes topped with a ringing endorsement of Mauritania’s strongman General Aziz. Her unconditional embrace of General Aziz is an anachronism from a bygone era. Two years into the Arab uprisings it is astonishing to see that some official have not interiorized its main lesson: alliances with authoritarian and corrupt leaders under the guise of bringing stability and security are a mirage bound to failure.

The assumptions behind these remarks raise serious concerns about the long-term impact for Mauritania of eventual American policies informed by these highly problematic views. My critique of these views can be broken down into three categories: historical, political, and policy-related. The choice of these categories is not random as they encompass some of the common mistakes and biases prevalent among some Mauritania commentators.

 History: Past Glories and Present Wounds

The Ambassador’s tone when speaking about ethnic relations in the country will not win her many friends in any of Mauritania’s communities. Describing Afro-Mauritanians as “closer to Senegal than they are to Mauritania” is a talking point that was used by Baathist ideologues within Taya’s army to deny the citizenship of Afro-Mauritanians. Ultimately, the ethnic massacres and expulsions against them in 1989 were justified by Taya’s regime as: “returning foreign elements where they belong.”

The Ambassador moves on from there to assign the blame for these events collectively to “light-skinned Moors.” The least that can be said of that claim is that it is ahistorical: Taya regime’s responsibility for these atrocities is well-documented. Paradoxically, many of the people responsible for these crimes against humanity still populate today the very military she praises.

When discussing the so-called “Counter-narratives” component of prevalent counter-terrorism practices, Ambassador Powell informs the audience that “Mauritanians do not like to be told how to be Muslim..” and that “..they [Mauritanians] do not like to be told what to think..” These statements gloss over the country’s own narrative about its place in the world and Islam’s role in its power structures.

It is the main pillar of both its social and political history; the cast system both in Moorish and Afro-Mauritanian communities is a direct function of the monopoly and dispensation of islamic knowledge. Social ascension for individuals, clans and tribes in both communities could be achieved in pre-colonial times only through two ways: the gun for warriors, and Islam for Marabouts. In modern times, religion remains one of the fastest ways to climb to the top of Mauritania’s social pyramid in all communities.  Mauritanians- like any Muslims – will inevitably be suspicious when a foreign non-muslim tries to advocate the merits of a certain brand of Islam over another.After all, they are acutely aware that they produced most of the ulemas leading the main Sufi orders in all of West Africa over the last 4 centuries. The assumption in the remarks is that an American can “evangelize” Islam in a Muslim society. Any reasonable observer will not take too much convincing to see how counterproductive this attitude can be.

Politics: Shifty Sands, Constant Grievances and Fledgeling Institutions

In discussing the Mauritanian opposition, Ambassador Powell candidly channels wholesale General Aziz’s views of his own detractors– the very same talking points he uses to describe them. For starters, the gentleman she calls a “tired old elite whose time has gone”– Ahmed Ould Daddah, is the leader of the biggest opposition party in the country historically and as of today. His party, the RFD, got 16 seats in parliament in the country’s last free and fair electoral cycle in 2006 and 2007 placing it as the single largest opposition party.

Daddah got 47% of the vote against Aziz’s backed candidate in the presidential election that year.  A quick review of the electoral results of that cycle paint a more accurate picture of opposition parties electoral weight. Powell’s attitude towards Daddah and the non-participatory opposition reflects the challenge of fully appreciating the complex legacy of Mauritania’s last 20 years of politics and power dynamics. Many players have different motives, they cannot all be explained through ethnic, tribal affiliations alone.

Take for example her assertion that “the Haratine vote will go to Messaoud Ould Boulkheir” because he is the top Haratine in Nouakchott. Not so. Messaoud’s APP party saw the departure of two top Haratine leaders Mohamed Ould Bourbous, and union leader Samoury Ould Biya. Both said their motive of defection is that Ould Boulkheir betrayed the Haratine’s cause. Not to mention that the APP strictly speaking was born of the merger between Arab-nationalists (the Nasseriste flavor) with Haratine historical movement ElHor.

Another interesting view the Ambassador holds is that the Mauritanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, Twassul, is the country’s biggest party. In the last free legislative elections in 2006, they got 4 seats, well behind the RFD, the leftist UFP (9 seats) and Parliament Speaker Messaoud Ould Boulkheir’s APP (5 seats). A serious handicap Twassul has to overcome is that almost all its leadership is made of Moors who hail from one district: Ouad Naga. Although the party makes a lot more noise on Aljazeera Arabic than its real weight, it still has a long way to go before it can replace the RFD at the top of the opposition. Mauritania’s ikhwanis have yet to capture crucial constituencies one needs to be truly a power to recon with in that society.

Daddah, and his fellow COD member parties do not contest Aziz as such, but oppose the system that allowed him to grow from a bodyguard opening his master’s car door to become the tsar of their destinies. For them, Aziz is only the newest avatar of military regimes rampaging through their country  and stifling any democratic institutions since 1978. The army’s hegemony over all matters in Mauritania is what they perceive to be no longer acceptable. For them to be Machiavellian in their dealings is only fair in a polity like Mauritania’s– at times, the instinct of survival trumps against overwhelming odds sound logic. for the Ambassador not to follow the shifting sands is also legitimate only if she were to keep an equal distance from all belligerents.

As of the country’s weak institutions, the ambassador does not fully address the causes of Mauritania’s lack of strong institutions and Aziz’s role in their desolate condition. That weakness played itself out brutally in the weeks following Aziz’s “friendly fire accident.” After the General’s courtiers accompanying him in Paris blocked the military and civilian’s access to him for over 10 days, it became clear that should he be incapacitated and if he refuses to relinquish office, no legal way was available to make a smooth transition. Tragically, a coup was the only way out. Matters were made worse as the state was paralyzed. nothing could be done without the President’s signature.

Articles 40 and 41 of the constitution (PDF link) gives the President, the head of the Senate and the Prime Minister the power to ask the Constitutional Court (supreme court) to declare a vacancy of the presidency. So, the first person on the list was unreachable for 10 days. Next in line, the Senate head, Ba Mbaré, took off with a diplomatic illness. The Prime Minister Ould Mohamed Laghdhaf turned off his phone after getting summoned by the Chief of Staff General Ghazouani to his office. He remained there for 72 hours. The third, and most important party in this process, is the Constitutional Council itself. Even had Aziz being truly incapacitated, it would not have been able to perform its role as 3 of its 5 members had not been sworn in yet. A telling sign was that after Aziz’s short return to Nouakchott, he signed into law a decree banning coups, then he took off back to France.

The lapsed Senate and parliament whose terms were extended (since October 2011) through dubious rulings of co-opted judges are not an inconvenience for Aziz: their strength would spell his doom. By definition, strongmen in our corner of the world do not build strong institutions, they thrive on their weakness. Aziz is no exception, or else, he would have never become president to begin with after launching two coups.

Policy: The Strongman Gambit 

The Ambassador’s embrace of General Aziz, and her vocal wishes for the opposition to fail in its attempts to unseat him is the undiplomatic moment par excellence in the talk. Here, the Ambassador of the United States of America is openly advocating for the survival of a corrupt dictator highly contested by the Mauritanian people.

Powell is equally adamant about Aziz being the man fully in charge. Her motives are clear: she believes him to be a responsible and valuable ally in the upcoming war in Northern Mali because he has a strong army. However, her calculus does not seem to include two main factors:  the Mauritanian army’s morale and the public opinion’s vehement opposition to any Mauritanian involvement in a war in Mali. The issue is politically sensitive because the war in Azawad is perceived as a war of choice.

On paper, Mauritania’s military is the most natural available choice for fighting AQIM. it is better trained and more disciplined than ECOWAS armies. It is also more experienced in fighting highly mobile hit and run battles inherent to desert warfare. Strong with some of the world’s best desert trackers; and its Saharan ethos of fighting hard, eating little, then going after the enemy as far as their Toyota pickups would get them. With such a romantic outlook, one almost feels nostalgic to the scenes of Lawrence of Arabia storming Aqaba’s fort at the head of an army of battle hardened desert warriors.

In practice, the September 2010 Hassi Sidi battle in Mali saw the Mauritanians ambushed and nearly defeated by AQIM. For days, the military refused to reveal the casualty list until the terrorists posted videos on the internet showing their war booty of large quantities of equipment seized from the Mauritanians. Mind you, these were new “elite” counter-terrorism units created for the purpose of fighting AQIM.

The Mauritanian army’s route in Hassi Sidi is a result of being poorly led by officers sitting in air-conditioned rooms hundreds of miles behind the front lines. Its NCO’s and troops have little motivation to spill their blood in a conflict they view to be of little consequence to them.

Uncertain of whether their families will be looked after, should they make the ultimate sacrifice like their fallen comrades over the last seven years, their own media tells them they would die not for their country, but on account of some far off Western official. After all had Spain, France, Germany and Italy for years not paid the terrorists millions of Euros to free hostages? If their enemies were armed to the teeth, it was certainly not their fault.

Plagued by a coterie of Francophone senior officers whose very language they can barely understand, Mauritanian grunts wonder why should they be spilling their blood as their bosses amass wealth and glory without ever setting foot in the desert’s scorching heat, let alone fighting along with them. For three decades, their officers were busy competing to outdo each other’s wealth and power.

General Aziz’s positions and commitment to any military operations has been somewhat of a work in progress. He first engaged in pre-emptive strikes at France’s behest against AQIM. Then changed his tone once the protest movement reached unprecedented heights last winter. Then stated more than once publicly that Mauritania will not participate, then the regime hinted that the country will offer logistical support. How come?

Mauritania’s strongman, General Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz, understood better than anyone that the Mauritanian army does not fight in shooting wars. He owes his very position of strongman to that maxim. his genius in toppling Taya was to play on the senior officers’ corps fears of a replay of the catastrophic Sahara war against the Polisario 30 years earlier: fighting a war was out of the question for them, even if it was a national interest.

in August 2005, then-president, Colonel Ould Taya gave a direct order to his military to hunt down AQIM’s precursor – the GSPC – after it attacked and killed Mauritanian soldiers in Northern Mauritania. That order was his last. his undoing was forgetting that in July 1978, after 3 years of warfare against the Polisario, he was among army officers that felt that a putsch was the only way to stop a war of choice. They swiftly deposed the country’s founding father Moctar Ould Daddah, then signed a cease-fire without any meaningful gains to justify the sacrifices made. However, let’s not forget that Mauritania’s entry in that war was in part a result outside interference– primarily fear of Morocco.

Plainly put, the psychological parallels between that period and today are fueling popular rejection of a Mauritanian intervention in Mali. All these factors account for the new Aziz Mali posture: if Mauritania’s borders are not attacked, and terrorist bases are not established within 200 km from its borders then Mauritania will not attack. All told, this is an elegant formula to reconcile the strongman’s internal needs with his needs for Western goodwill: Mauritania’s active involvement in the impending war.

A question worth considering for Western policymakers is: what is the potential political fallout in Mauritania from a military operation in Azawad? Will the Mauritanian military officer corps tolerate a high casualty count? Given that a good portion of the junior officers in the military are natives of regions bordering Azawad, what will their tribes do if they begin to die in big numbers? And the more important question of all: Do Western decision-makers have a Plan B in case things went bad for Mali’s neighbors during the upcoming intervention?

As we say in Mauritania: crooked sticks will always have crooked shades. Hedging so much on a strongman in the post Arab uprisings era is a risky policy. If the fallout in Mauritania from a war in Azawad is not realistically assessed on the basis of facts instead of wishful thinking about the regime’s considerable shortcomings, then we could end up with two failed states instead of one. A perfect host body for an already severe jihadi infection.





Dad Blogs About Azawad

29 12 2012

My father (1st from left) meeting Egypt’s Nasser during first Mauritanian official state visit to Cairo in July 1963

It is not every day that one can call their own dad a fellow blogger! My father, a retired diplomat and historian has been blogging more than I have of late. He produced a 12-part series on his Arabic-language blog “Ewrag Mussafir” (Travelers Notes) about the Azawad province in Mali. The series covers in short format the history, politics, sociology and ethnography of that troubled region.

It is a very useful contribution for Arabic-language readers explaining the background of the current upheaval in that region. Very few has been written of late in accessible language explaining a rather complicated and profoundly unfortunate fate of the peoples of Azawad.

Given the current context,  these writings also offer insights into how Mauritanians think of Azawad and their perspective on its affairs. My father’s views were informed by his diplomatic and journalistic career spanning over 4 decades, as well as, translating into Arabic of some of early 20th century French colonial sociologist Paul Marty‘s books about today’s Mauritania and Mali. Marty’s work was instrumental for France’s colonization of that area and informed its policies aiming to dominate that space.

the impending war in Azawad remains a highly unpopular prospect among Mauritanians who fear that the conflict would spill over into their own territory. Alas, I do not have much time to translate these posts. Hopefully, someone else would.








Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 111 other followers

%d bloggers like this: