Mauritania Update

Maneuvers at Tourine. From "Al-Bayan Raqam Wahed," Aljazeera.

Three sets of observations on recent things related to Mauritania in terms of: (1) terrorism and the military, (2) Mali and (3) politics in general. On the whole, sources report general displeasure with the political situation among the political class, the tribes, among Afro-Mauritanians and parts of the military. This has been the trend, in general, since late last autumn. The Mauritanian president has strengthened his immediate inner circle while frequently alienating large segments of the population, including his own allies.

1. Tough terrain: Mauritanian sources report growing discontent within the military, especially within those units currently tasked with combating AQIM in the north. Outposts at Lemgheity, Bir Moghreine, Atar and Zouerate are said to have low morale. Troops and officers are suspicious of the president’s political and strategic motivations. Many see the AQIM issue as an “American or European problem” rather than a Mauritanian one. The men are working in rough terrain, patrolling, sweating and guarding against potential AQIM raids. These units serve for two months at a time on the lookout for AQIM and related smugglers and bandits. Their rotations are spartan and the landscape is psychologically as well as physically challenging.

Black/white area represents the area of operations; Green forts indicate outposts, exclaimation points show sites of attack; note that Lemgheity and Tourine are both.

The provinces of Adrar and Tiris Zemmour (where these bases are located) separate the populous south from the vast open space in the northeast on the border with Mali and Algeria, home to AQIM and smuggling networks. The surroundings are most dunes and scrub and is flatter in the north than the south. Zouerate and Lemgheity are especially noteworthy because both are home to military outposts that have been attacked by AQIM before; Lemgheity was the site of the first GSPC attack in 2005. Zouerate, too, saw a bloody attack in 2009 when an AQIM attack killed several soldiers near Tourine. After 2005 patrols increased incrementally and in the last year and a half special battalions were formed specifically to monitor and guard against AQIM. Forces have been posted to the far north in the vicinity of Zouerate for decades; the army was tasked with guarding the critical railway that snakes along the border with the Western Sahara linking the iron mines at Bir Moghreine and F’derik with Nouadhibou on the coast during the war with the POLISARIO. Here they were exposed to frequent attacks. This area is economically important and if the mines or the railway were attacked, the situation would be dire for the whole country. It is an area difficult to patrol and defend.

Mauritanian troops exercising at Tourine (Screen shot from Aljazeera documentary "Al-Bayan Raqam Wahed").

This hot and remote quadrangle — the men call it “Hell” — is one of Mauritania’s important battlegrounds with AQIM. This is the region where the Mauritanian military has had most of its direct and violent interaction with AQIM. The terrain is rough and forbidding and unit rotations probably feel significantly longer than they actually are. Perhaps 4,000 troops rotate through the main outposts and bases this region. These forces have seen success in apprehending AQIM “scouts” and operators in the north, but they face significant challenges.

These units are organized specifically to fight AQIM. These new fighting units, called “modules,” are composed of around 200 men, commanded by a captains or a majors. In turn, every three modules (600-700 men) are placed under the command of a Lieutenant-Colonel or Colonel.  Each module is made of three squads: 1 fighting squad, 1 logistics squad, 1 administrative squad. The goal is to set up highly mobile advanced fighting outposts to conduct search and destroy operations against terrorists and smugglers. Some of them have been trained by France or the United States, but their combat readiness remains questionable (among Mauritanians); two Mauritanian-trained elite Army BCP (Bataillon de Commandos Paratuchistes) units are based further south in Atar. These units undergo grueling preparation so rough some men have died in training. These are perhaps the most combat-ready of the lot. Elite French-trained anti-terrorism Gendarmerie units are part of the new counter-terrorism command and primarily operate in urban areas and are not designed for desert combat. The Mauritanians face many problems that faced them in their war with the POLISARIO; the Mauritanians might look at the South African campaigns against SWAPO for ideas about technical and logistical solutions that are (mostly) beyond their financial means.

Two great challenges face the men in the desert: (1) lack of reliable roads linking the outposts and bases (infrastructure) and; (2) the absence of real-time air reconnaissance and intelligence capabilities. Bumpy and barely paved roads make transport between the camps at Atar, Zouerate and Bir Moghreine difficult and slow. Because it lacks adequate air power, the army is frequently exposed to hit-and-run attacks that could be mitigated with better cover and advanced notice. All of this makes it difficult to sustain activity given the costs associated with logistics, especially the provisioning of water and fuel. (See the map at left for the major roads/rails connecting the outposts; many of these are partially paved, if paved at all.) The Mauritanians have faced set backs because of this situation in the past, during the Sahara War and in recent years against AQIM. Though the Mauritanians are skilled at mobile warfare, their lack of resources continues to dog them in the field. Some fear that a successful and significant attack on one of these outposts may cause greater destabilization within the ranks than previous ones, especially with already testy officers. Many civilians worry that the government has not taken the AQIM issue seriously and divorced it from partisan issues and that the president has irritated important segments of the officer class (this would not be the first time desert deployments ticked off the military).

2. Mali: Over the last three months Mauritania and Mali have had multiple diplomatic spats. Most notable for outsiders have been Mauritania’s (and Algeria’s) sour reaction to the Malian government agreeing to pay a ransom to AQIM for French tourists (the Mauritanians recalled their ambassador from Bamako) and Mauritania’s protests at a proposed summit meeting on terrorism being held in Bamako. Some have seen this as either the Mauritanians posturing (i.e., trying to look “tough” on terrorism) or following Algeria’s lead on ransoms (the Algerians have a long record of opposition to the paying of ransoms and what to set up legal repercussions for it). There is truth in both places, but a deeper cause is Gen. Ould Abdel Aziz’s poor relationship with Amadou Toumani Touré. Touré is known to have a personal problem with Ould Abdel Aziz, considering him dim and without a long future in office. The two met before the 2005 coup while Ould Taya was still in power and Touré was unimpressed with Ould Abdel Aziz. For that reason, Touré did not rush to accept the 8 June coup that brought Ould Abdel Aziz to power and those close to Ould Abdel Aziz’s circles see the Mauritanian president’s antipathy for Mali as a result of that first slight. Furthermore, Ould Abdel Aziz’s continued outbursts at Touré have reinforced the Malian president’s running assumptions about Ould Abdel Aziz’s character and political viability. The two men sat down in Ottawa Copenhagen in March to discuss their differences where Ould Abdel Aziz said, warmly: “We saw each other and we told each other a lot of things.” While the negative impact of these personal feelings have been largely cosmetic, they may be of relatively larger consequence down the line. The Malians have, though, granted the Mauritanians the right of hot pursuit and both sides seem to recognize the importance of cooperation.

3. General Congeniality: Ould Abdel Aziz has thus far alienated more social and political forces than he has won over. In the economic sphere, many see him entrenching favoritism for a couple of wealthy businessmen and in the process neglecting farmers and fishermen. Farming has suffered greatly and domestic food production has fallen; fishing has also been hit. Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall, the president’s rich cousin and rival, is said to have sold off a large plot of land (which he acquired while junta-leader during the 2005-2007 transition) and one of his markets, causing concern about medium term economic and political stability. Though the president has increased his international legitimacy, domestically his style of rule — peppered with surprise sackings and ultimatums — has caused even some who support him to ask questions. Local sources say that Ould Abdel Aziz sent an aide to the areas in the north inhabited by his own Oulad Bou S’baʿa tribe, asking each family to send one of their sons to join the army. He has irritated several of the important tribes who backed him during the July elections and who make up important segments of the military — his own tribe is numerically small in the population and the military. Light rumors of tribalism and tribal favoritism has simmered since last autumn and whether actual favoritism exists, the perception that it does is incendiary and politically dangerous. A primary/secondary school set up in Nouakchott has been said to be a funnel for the president’s tribe to build a larger base within the armed forces. This perception is growing, through one must consider the danger of reductionism and analyses that emphasize tribalism (or any single variable at all) over other factors. Many see “the president’s problem” as coming from an overly militarized, hierarchical worldview that bruises civilians and foreigners expecting a more consensus-based style. (The tribal element will be discussed in another post shortly.)

Black students, angry over comments by a minister (Prime Minister Laghdaf) who refused to translate a statement into French (from Arabic) because “Mauritania is an Arab country,” took to the streets in protest against what they call government racism. A recent reshuffle posted eight Afro-Mauritanians to the cabinet, hoping to quell these sentiments. The same reshuffle also placed Hamdi Ould Mahjoub Ould Sweieh in charge of Communications and Parliamentary Relations. Ould Sweieh was a member of the Union pour la Démocratie et le Progrès party until Naha Mint Mouknass took over its leadership from her father and he left in disgust at the party’s nepotism. He has returned with skepticism. The UDP has a small parliamentary bloc, and many of those appointed in the reshuffle are members of similarly meager, pro-Ould Abdel Aziz parties. The intention is to give the cabinet a broad and participatory coloring, though the largest parties (the APP, UFP and RFD) are left out. Other important postings include new chiefs at the Ministry of Communications and the news agency AMI, which some see as evidence of concern in the government that it will need stronger control over the media in coming months.

4. A history of coups: An interesting Aljazeera documentary (البيان رقم 1 “Al-Bayan Raqam Wahed“/”Statement Number 1”) looks at the history of coups d’etats in Mauritania (Arabic). It includes video footage of the region discussed in part one of this post and screen shots from the documentary are used here.


14 thoughts on “Mauritania Update

  1. Excellent piece as usual from Kal.

    A few clarifications and corrections:

    1.The meeting between Toure and Aziz was in Copenhagen not Ottawa. Aziz has yet to travel to North America, and his (self-imposed?) absence from the UN general assembly last September, where he could have gained both international legitimacy and strategic contacts, was a sign of poor diplomatic vision.

    2. Which leads to the second point. Though some tribal favoritism has been indeed displayed, an important matter still perplexes the local scene and the country’s partners: the replacement of the former Foreign Minister Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou. The President’s own cousin and close partner, Ould Mohamedou had adroitly navigated the diplomatic problems last year and was instrumental to a positive resolution of the crisis (earning even the respect of the FNDD). He had been expected as Prime Minister in the new governement. Yet his replacement by Naha Mint Mouknass has by most accounts ushered the current diplomatic disarray as the daughter of the country’s first foreign minister arguably lacks the gravitas and stamina of the former Harvard professor.

    3. It is the Prime Minister himself, Moulay Ould Mohamed Laghdaf, not merely “a minister”, who made the divisive statement about language. This most thorny of issues has (re)opened old ethnic wounds adding to Ould Abdelaziz’s trouble. The President’s silence on this issue is also regarded with suspicion by many of his black allies, notably among the Pulaar segment of the country.


    • Thank you for the correction regarding the Toure/Aziz meeting, will correct it.

      Will clarify that it was Laghdaf, was a aware of this but wrote it in a hurry.

    • Am preparing a post on Min Mouknass and the Aziz foreign policy in general and will discuss some of these issues you mention. Thanks for the informative commentary.

  2. You’re quite welcomed. It is us readers who ought to thank you for such first-rate analyses.

    An in-depth piece on the country’s foreign policy is certainly overdue as the drift since the election was both unexpected and felt universally.

    • Close to none. It reads like a lot of the rest of the Moroccan propaganda that comes out of DC. The DRS accusations are not substantiated and generally bogus; the supposed and “significant” “link” between AQIM/Polisario is nonsensical; there have been young people in the camps recruited into AQIM, but most of the stories (and almost all of those coming from Moroccan sources) exaggerate this to the Polisario either “supporting” AQIM or being evidence of their inability to control the camps, which is nonsense on both counts. If one asks people who know about this stuff in the Polisario they frankly admit that there have been young people recruited; and they are emphatic about their trying to stamp it out. The thing stinks of lobbyist paperwork.

      Thanks for posting this and its good to you still reading and putting up links.

      • Thanks Kal. Indeed looks like propaganda. I continuously read TMND, but difficult to link because of my travel to remote places for work (development work). Sent 2-3 comments, but did not reach TMND because of this.

        I just read this from Tahalil hebdo (Mauritania) regarding the recent hostage taking in Niger (a French who can’t be a tourist and his Algerian driver – a stupid journalist?).

        Taken note of Flintock 10 based in Ouagadougou (with no involvement of Algeria) and the Tamanrasset Algeria-led Center. French are not part of neither the Tamanrasset Center and the Ouagadougou Center, although we can guess that they are close to Blaise Compaoré and leave the US mess their pré-carré. Wondering whether Malian will buy into the Algerian Initiative (Tamanrasset Center) while the latter have been sabotaging the Malian Initiatice (Security Summit at the Head of State level in Bamako called for by ATT for 2-3 years). Next week will let us know a little bit more on who is doing what and against who.

  3. Kal,

    Great post. You mentioned an AJZ documentary called “Al-Bayan Raqam Wahed.” I search all over in Arabic and English and can’t find it. Any suggestions? Thanks

    “Mauritanian troops exercising at Tourine (Screen shot from Aljazeera documentary “Al-Bayan Raqam Wahed”).

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