Bringing Everyone to the Table

In March, Tuareg separatists seized control of the northern two thirds of Mali. Claiming that they had long been ignored by the central government based in the south, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) launched a campaign for independence in January 2012. The Tuaregs have harbored secessionist dreams for years, but their calls have been roundly rejected by the international community.

So, without international support, the MNLA played a risky game and aligned itself with Islamist groups like Ansar Dine and, allegedly, Al Qaeda in the Islamist Maghreb – but it turns out that the enemy of your enemy is not always your friend. By June, significant tensions between the MNLA and the Islamists culminated in a split, and since then, the Islamists have completely hijacked the movement.

The Islamists imposed strict sharia law in Northern Mali and human rights abuses have abounded. Ruins in Timbuktu were leveled for encouraging idolatry. Adulterers were stoned.

The international community pretended none of this was happening. A chunk of land the size of Turkey was seized in the blink of an eye and the world shrugged. Of course, unsaid is that many of the Tuareg were armed in the course of Libya’s civil war – obviously, no Western politician wanted to own up to causing another mess.

Finally, however, Mali has made a few headlines. This week, Romano Prodi was named the U.N.’s special envoy for North Africa’s Sahel. The rationale behind the move was to get a relatively high profile politician to raise awareness. (Never mind that Prodi is an economist by training and has almost no diplomacy experience.) What’s more, France this week announced an ultimatum of sorts – a plan for military intervention must be drafted in the next month.

Pretty unimpressive, but at least steps are being taken, right?

Wrong. Western policy makers are entirely missing the point. The fact of the matter is that even though Ansar Dine hijacked MNLA’s movement, the Islamist organization’s leader, Iyad ag-Ghali, is still highly respected in Tuareg circles. Tuareg separatist dreams are alive for a reason – Northern Mali has long lagged behind the rest of the country in health care and education access, for example, and the Tuareg  people have felt marginalized.

Yes, ag-Ghali and Ansard Dine perverted the MNLA’s original intent, but the fact of the matter is that they still hold a lot of clout in the region. They’ve managed to rule a vast stretch of land through violence, yes, but also because they have genuine support.

And yet, France’s answer is to invade. Organizing a coalition to stamp out Ansar Dine and/or the MNLA will only breed more discontent and resentment among the Tuareg.

Obviously independence is not the answer. Dozens of ethnic groups throughout Africa are vying for autonomy at one time or another, and allowing for an independent state of Azawad in northern Mali would set a risky precedent. At the same time, the international community cannot be tone deaf to the realities of the situation. Rather than pillorying Ansar Dine, the U.N. should take a deep breath and try for diplomacy.

Helping Azawad transition to semi-autonomous status should be the goal. The leader of the MNLA said that he would be open to this idea – surely, if given the opportunity to enter meaningful, legitimate talks, even Ansar Dine would soften its stance.

The international community has a tendency to rule out the possibility of compromise with certain groups. Right now, Islamists are the world’s pariahs. The U.S. has tried to establish peace in Afghanistan without surrendering a shred of ground to the Taliban. That hasn’t worked out so well – closing out Ansar Dine and/or the MNLA won’t either. Until the world accepts this – that separatist movements exist for a reason and solutions need to include them – peace in Mali is looking increasingly like a mirage.