News readers across the world suddenly discovered that Timbuktu actually exists. Unfortunately this was for the wrong reasons.
The half baked war to topple Muammar Gaddafi did topple the world’s longest serving non-royal ruler and few tears are being shed for his grisly demise. However, the fallout still reverberates over the Sahel. The mercurial Gaddafi had a romantic fondness for the Tuareg people. Libyan oil largess was spent in the region and the Tuareg were recruited as mercenaries for a dictator who was careful not to arm his people. The Tuareg of Libya were one of the only Libyan ethnicities (other than Gaddafi’s own tribe) to stick with him till the bitter end and Gaddafi’s dauphin Saif was captured as he tried to flee to Tuareg territory.
As the fighting in Libya drew to a close, many of the Tuareg mercenaries returned home. They brought along the military equipment Gaddafi paid for. The result has been turmoil in the region. In Mali, one of the relatively long lived democracies in the region, it turned a simmering rebellion into a hot civil war. The Tuareg inflicted a series of reverses on the poorly equipped and led Malian army. The frustrated soldiers mutinied and almost accidentally launched a coup.
This leaves Mali’s erstwhile allies in the horns of a dilemma. Without the cold war to rationalize it, supporting dictators is a no no – even for Mali’s African neighbors. Even though the coup leaders have promised to restore democracy (at an unspecified time) and not try to retain power, aid has been cut off. Then there is the ugly military reality on the ground. The legendary city of Timbuktu fell to the rebels this week. It appears very unlikely that Mali, even with the assistance of West African neighbors, can win the territory back by force.
For now the Tuareg in Mali are content with their ethnic homeland. But the conflagration could spread with regional involvement sparking a Tuareg revolt in Niger, Algeria and Libya. Even if the fighting does not spread, Mali is effectively partitioned by force.
In the post colonial era the African Union elected to suppress an ethnic free for all by retaining colonial borders. Secessionist movements like Katanga and Biafra were strongly discouraged. Even though Eritrea could claim an exception as an Italian colony before World War II, it took 45 years and the fall of the communist Derg in Ethiopia for Eritrea to break free. The effective partition of Somalia into three parts is ignored as if it does not exist. South Sudan has been the one carve-out from the colonial borders that has been grudgingly accepted. Now Mali could be the next. And accepting a Tuareg homeland creates the type of uncertainty that causes Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran to collude in preventing an independent Kurdish state.
This was not what the world wanted to see in the aftermath of toppling Muammar Gaddafi. The risks had been noted, but had largely been ignored. Now Mali reaps the whirlwind.
It should serve as a cautionary tale for the current drumbeat to get involved in the Syrian ethnic quagmire. The Assad regime is vile, but the Alawite, Shiite and Christian communities of Syria fear the alternative of a Sunni dominated regime. The Saudis who had no qualms in crushing a Shiite rebellion against the Sunni al-Khalifa despots in Bahrain have cynically become the apostles of human rights for the largely Sunni Syrian rebels. And the bomb everybody trio in the United States Senate (Messers. McCain, Lieberman and Graham) are chomping at the bit to suck the United States into another ethnic quagmire.
Good intentions can have unintended consequences. Beware those who would launch us into costly wars without weighing the consequences.