Mali: Gold and Hope is Not Enough Up North

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August 18, 2023: Now the Mali government claims the thousand or Russian military personnel in Mali belong to the Russian military, not the Wagner Group. Back in Russia, the Russian government has settled its disputes with the Wagner Group by giving Wagner Group personnel overseas a choice of either working for the Russian military or being declared outlaws and no longer have any official or financial connection with the government. The Mali government was informed of this change and advised that it was in Mali’s interest to deal directly with the Russian government about Russian troops in Mali and requisitions for more weapons and munitions from Russia. Previously the Mali military government used locally mined gold to pay for Russian weapons and the services of Russian soldiers. Mali is a major producer of gold and the Russians have always been willing accept payments in gold. Russia maintains a huge gold stockpile (about 2,300 tons), the fifth largest in the world. The Russian gold is an emergency fund that is now being tapped to pay for military operations in Ukraine.

The military government in Mali had hoped that hiring Russian Wagner Group mercenaries would enable Mali to maintain control of northern and central Mali. These two regions have been under growing attack by Islamic terror groups but the Russians made it worse. The Mali military government is running out of people to blame for the mess they got themselves into. The problems began when the military government ordered the independent French Barkhane counter-terrorism force out of Mali and it was gone by the end of 2021. Since then, Mali forced the 15,000 UN peacekeepers to start withdrawing.

The government forced the French and G5 peacekeepers out by the end of 2021. In 2017 Mali, Chad, Niger, the Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso agreed to form a new “G5 counter-terrorism force” that would work in cooperation with the similar but larger and better equipped French force that had been operating in the Sahel since 2014. The Sahel is the semi-desert area south of the Sahara Desert that covers much of northern Africa.

Back then the French concluded that the Sahel was still troubled by thousands of Islamic terrorists and that this situation could not be taken care of quickly. In order to maintain pressure on the Islamic terrorists, France established a special force of 3,000 troops to fight Islamic terrorists throughout the Sahel (actually just Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso). This French force grew to some 4,000 troops equipped with 200 armored vehicles, 20 transport and attack helicopters, six jet fighters and three large UAVs. There are also two twin engine C-160 air transports available for use within the Sahel. Supplies and reinforcements were regularly flown in using long-range transports (like the C-17) belonging to NATO allies (especially the U.S. and Britain). From the beginning the French force included a thousand French troops in Mali and the rest dispersed to other Sahel bases and ready to quickly move anywhere in the region that Islamic terrorist activity had been detected. The G5 nations already cooperated by sharing intelligence and providing quick access to their territory by the French force. In addition the Americans provided satellite and UAV surveillance and other intel services (especially analysis and access to nearly all American data on Islamic terrorist activities in the region). Each of the G5 member countries contribute from 500 to 2,000 personnel and consist largely of special operations troops. Many of these troops have already worked with their French counterparts or been trained by French or American special operations advisors.

All this was meant to keep the Islamic terrorists in the Sahel weak and disorganized. That worked until recently when the current Mali military regime ordered the French/G5 force out, but AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), which has been around since 2007, was still in business (as gangsters smuggling drugs and illegal migrants north) and getting support from Islamic terrorists in Europe and the Persian Gulf. Islamic terrorists continue to carry out attacks in Mali (mainly the north) and in the G5 states to let the world know that Islamic terrorists were still present in the area.

Another reminder has been the high casualty rate among peacekeepers in Mali. UN peacekeepers in Mali suffered 26 dead during 2016, the highest number of any UN peacekeeping operation and 90 percent of the UN peacekeeper deaths in 2016, even though the Mali force comprises less than 15 percent of all UN peacekeepers. The Mali peacekeepers have been in this situation for three years in a row. Over a hundred peacekeepers (mostly UN, but some French) have died in Mali since they arrived in 2013. This is the highest casualty rate of all current UN peacekeeping operations.

Mali wanted to keep the 13,500 UN peacekeepers who maintain government control over the rebellious north. These peacekeepers are supplied by AU (African Union) nations and some of the African nations supplying these peacekeepers are withdrawing that support. A few percent of the peacekeeping force consists of troops from NATO nations that supply specialized services, especially transport helicopters and other services. People in areas where the peacekeepers are stationed warn that the security situation will deteriorate once the peacekeepers depart because the military government has not got the ability to maintain local security. That’s going to hurt the economy and cause more residents to flee the country. This is how corruption often ruins the local economy. Then again, elected officials were often corrupt. The pattern is that too many corrupt elected officials leads to rebellion or, more likely, a coup by the military, who tend to be no more effective than the people they replaced.

There was growing opposition among UN members for maintaining the expensive peacekeeper force, which is the most dangerous the UN is currently involved with. The Mali peacekeeping operation costs about half a billion dollars a month and that is about the only foreign aid Mali gets now that the military government is in control. Most foreign aid was halted because the government was stealing so much of the aid. It is difficult to steal any of the money spent on peacekeepers but the government seems to be trying to do just that.

Once the UN voted to maintain the Mali peacekeeping force for another year, the military government began harassing the peacekeepers and threatening to expel all of them. The peacekeepers serve on contracts (with the UN) for varying periods usually between two and six months. The withdrawal of the peacekeepers began on July 1st and will be completed by the end of 2023.

August 17, 2023: Mali is now one of four countries in the region ruled by a military government that overthrew an elected government. The other coup ruled nations are Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Niger. The generals justified their takeovers because of the need to defeat the growing number of Islamic terrorist groups in the region. Military governments are rarely more effective against Islamic terrorists because Western nations providing counter-terrorism assistance tend to leave, or are ordered out by the generals. The French, who provided the most effective counter-terrorism force in the region were ordered out and back in France the taxpayers supported the departure because they were tired of paying for it and seeing little progress. The military government in Niger left the American UAV operations at the four year old “Airbase 201” outside Agadez, which is 730 kilometers northeast of the capital Niamey. U.S. aircraft have been operating from Niamey, which is close to the current operations in Mali, since 2018. Armed American UAVs operate out of Airbase 201 and often carry out attacks against Islamic terrorists in northern Mali. France used to have some large UAVs operating in Niger and Mali but not as many as the Americans. The French UAVs are gone now, as are the French fighter-bombers and helicopter gunships in the region that supported French counter-terrorist operations.

August 15, 2023: In the north, across the border in Niger, a Niger army force was ambushed near the border by about a hundred on motorcycles. The army lost 17 men and at last twenty were wounded. The Islamic terrorists suffered heavier losses and the survivors retreated into Mali. Several Islamic terror groups maintain bases in Mali, near the Niger border. The most prominent of these is ISGS (Islamic States in Greater Sahara). Islamic terrorists near the Niger border took advantage of the departure of French counterterrorism forces in 2021 by seizing and holding territory in Mali. This began with more attacks on the Niger border. The departing French and G5 counter-terrorism forces had kept the Islamic terrorists out of Mali. The Mali army and a small number of Russian (Wagner Group) military contractors have been unable, or unwilling, to carry on with that effort or prevent the Islamic terror groups from crossing the border and advancing into Mali. ISGS is one of the two ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) groups in the region. When they showed up in 2018, ISGS operated mainly in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, especially the area where the three borders meet.

Since late 2022 ISGS have been working to take control of the border between Mali and Niger. Mali responded with soldiers and a handful of Wagner Group mercenaries but that was unsuccessful. After that Mali did nothing about the situation as its security forces and the UN peacekeepers were needed elsewhere. The Niger government was also unable to respond and sought to negotiate a deal with ISGS. Appearing in 2015 as an affiliate of ISIL and part of ISWAP (Islamic State West Africa Province) that changed in 2021 when ISGS declared itself separate from ISWAP and declared northern Mali and some areas in Niger and Burkina Faso its future caliphate. The ISIL affiliated Islamic terrorists are far more violent than the more numerous al Qaeda. This also means casualties for the 12,000 UN peacekeepers. ISGS violence involves attacks on Islamic terror groups that refuse to take orders from ISIL.

The tri-border (Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso) area has been a terrorist hotspot since 2018 because Islamic terror groups can just cross the border to escape any effective counterterrorism efforts. For that reason, this area has been called the Menaka Region. Previously this area was just part of the larger Gao Region, centered on one of the few cities in the north. The area being fought over is near where the borders of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso meet. Menaka has become ungovernable because so many Islamic terrorists and bandits now operate here. The French counterterrorism forces regularly searched for and attacked specific Islamic terrorist targets. The Mali government underestimated how important the French forces, with their airmobile troops, UAV surveillance and ground attack aircraft were in keeping the Islamic terrorists from establishing themselves inside Mali. The current Mali military government has no clear plan for dealing with this situation and are withdrawing their counterterrorism forces south, to protect the capital and the more prosperous and populous south. Niger has suffered five military coups since independence in 1960. The recently deposed government was the first elected government in Niger to succeed an elected government. It’s a common pattern in Africa, where the generals believe they can run the government better than elected officials. This is generally untrue. The generals lack the local and international legitimacy of an elected government and tend to be less adept at government administration than the professional politicians.

August 13, 2023: In the north (south of Timbuktu) four peacekeepers were wounded during an attack by an Islamic terrorist group.

August 11, 2023: In the north former Tuareg rebels were attacked by Mali soldiers and Russian Wagner Group mercenaries. Mali said this was retaliation for Tuareg threats to the presence of the Mali military in the north. Mali has long had problems in the sparsely populated north, where most of the population is Tuareg or Arab. Most of the Mali population is black African and prefers to live south of the Niger River in the more populated and prosperous south.

Animosity between dark skinned Africans and lighter skinned people from the north has been around as long as the two groups have been in contact. Arabs first moved south of the Sahara in large numbers over a thousand years ago and often came as conquerors and slavers. Although many of the black Africans encountered converted to Islam, the lighter skinned Arabs, including the non-Arab Tuareg and Berbers, considered themselves superior. This racist attitude has persisted and the black Africans often reciprocate. This is one reason why the majority Tuareg of northern Mali constantly rebel. Not only is the Mali government corrupt but it is dominated by black Africans, which is what 90 percent of Malians are. Officially, Islam and most African governments deny that such ethnic tensions exist. This in itself is progress, but the animosities remain and often become quite deadly. The slaving also continues and sometimes gets into the news. This happened a lot in Sudan since the 1990s as the government encouraged Arabized tribes to raid non-Moslem black African tribes and take slaves. In northern Mali retreating al Qaeda men sometimes took newly enslaved blacks with them.

Meanwhile the CMA (Coordination of Azawad Movements) coalition in the north has agreed to put aside their disagreements and form a unified group. CMA had long been a pro-government Tuareg coalition that had not resolved all their clan and family disputes. Azawad is the Tuareg term for their homeland in northern Mali and several other North African nations. The 2015 peace deal ended the Tuareg support for Islamic terrorism, but not the ethnic animosities. These local, and often ancient, disagreements and feuds are often not connected with the 2012 rebellion in the north nor the continuing Islamic terrorism problems, but they do cause security problems that interfere with rebuilding the economy and much else. The Tuareg peace deal was stalled for years because the black majority in the south did not want to even consider granting as much autonomy as the Tuaregs demanded. The two groups have always been at odds but were only united in the same country by the colonial French in the 19th century. Like most African countries that were formerly European colonies, dividing the post-colonial nation is not an acceptable option and the colonial borders are considered sacrosanct. The current mess began when France took swift action in January 2013 by leading a military operation to clear Islamic terrorists out of northern Mali. Aided by Chad and a growing number of other African peacekeeping contingents, this effort continues and is somewhat open ended. The French acted because in 2012 Tuareg tribal rebels (with the help of al Qaeda affiliated Islamic terrorists) in northern Mali chased out government forces and declared a separate Tuareg state. The Mali army mutinied because of a lack of support from the corrupt government down south and took control of the capital. The army is still in charge and not showing any signs of confirming the old peace deals with the CMA.

July 26, 2023: In the north, across the border in Niger, the army deposed the elected government and appointed a general as the new president. The army justified this because there was an urgent need to address the growing power of Islamic terrorist groups in Niger. July 25, 2023:

 

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