The map at right is attached to an AFP article titled “Freeing Sahel Hostages by Force is too Risky — Experts“. It depicts the travel warnings issued to citizens by France (and other foreign powers) in the wake of recent AQIM activities, especially in Niger and Mali. It makes obvious some points that have been made here less overtly:
- The extent to which AQIM’s activities have aversely affected the economic prospects for the region. The areas where AQIM operates are often rich in natural resources, at least partially reliant on tourism revenues and strongly affected by climate change. The wide swaths of territory represented as “no-go” areas fall into these categories and make up significant parts the Sahel states’ geography. The majority of Mali, Niger and Mauritania’s populations do not live in the red or yellow “no-go” zones; they live closer to the river systems and in the southern towns. The southern areas, especially around Bamako and Niamey are consider safe for what might be obvious reasons. Note, though, that all of Mauritania is a “no-go” area. The restricted area in Mauritania includes all the areas hit in AQIM raids in the past — note that this overlaps with considerable parts of what used to be the country’s great tourist attractions and the region that contains its vital mining operations (the same goes for Niger). The economic impact in terms of outside perceptions and potential lost revenue will probably be greater than in the past.
- The power of a small group in a big space. AQIM is small; the Sahel is big. Many smart people and this blogger have long considered the group’s threat to the region (and certainly “the world”) to be relatively marginal and frequently exaggerated. Considering the precariousness of political stability in north-south relations in Mali and Niger, the fragile economic situation and the vastness of the space relative to its population the relative threat AQIM poses to local political order has to be considered more intensely. Kidal, Azaouadh, the eastern Hodh and Adrar regions are large; AQIM, smugglers and local militaries are small. The geography is difficult to control in real time from the settled regions to the south, west and north. Technology has a tendency to help humans compress, organize and control their environment. Domesticated animals, GPSs, aircraft, 4X4s and other technology enhance control and economic/military projection power. With limited resources it is difficult to concentrate such capacities and spread them in a balanced way. AQIM focuses all of its attention to surviving and operating in the desert; the Malians, Nigeriens and Mauritanians devote resources to this in addition to all the problems developing societies face. The loss of strength gradient between Bamako or Niamey and Kidal and the various Saharan positions used by smugglers and exploited by AQIM is high; where there are modern roads and airports the gradient increases, especially in Mauritania and Niger. Still, the situation is difficult and precarious for national governments. Locals have a distinct advantage over law enforcement and military types hoping to reign them in from trading and roaming as they please. High mobility and endurance are key; the Mauritanian military is in large measure designed for precisely this environment. The Malian and Nigerien forces have similar points of inflection but are less honed for desert warfare. That emphasis is undermined by problems of capacity, training and discipline. Small mobile rebels rebel forces thrive in precisely this environment, as the Malians and Nigeriens have seen with their Tuareg populations and the Mauritanians learned from the POLISARIO. The efforts of a small organization like AQIM are outsized in this vast, open environment.
This also means that large or medium-scale conventional or semi-conventional military activity (as seen in July and September) can also have greater affects than they might ordinarily because the affects on civilians are great even if the actual operation is small. And especially because the population is small but its tribal character is large, one death or two deaths in a village or group of less than 300 is similar (or greater) in affect than a similar number in a town of 10,000. Military offensives risk causing broader political and economic deterioration in a region suffering from other security challenges such as climate change, ethnic discrimination and rivalry, hunger and so on. That local governments have had trouble prioritizing AQIM in terms of other important threats to their stability while outsiders have made themselves visible enemies and targets of the group’s narrative and violence (France especially) shows that the situation is more complex than just “counterterrorism,” “jihadism” or the like. Many of the France’s responses to AQIM have empowered the group’s narrative with respect to the nature of local governments. While there is little sympathy here for ransom payments on the Spanish or German model, France’s more aggressive moves have not put any effort into undermining AQIM’s appeal or overall operation. Their military assaults have made Mali, Niger and Mauritania look like weak puppets while achieving very limited objectives on the ground (as carried out they have greater [political] utility inside France than in the region; and this not to deny France’s powerful influence over these countries); its ransom deals and exchanges have in many cases empowered AQIM. It is the states themselves in the Sahel that need to project force to deal with AQIM as well as economic opportunities for local people. This is the harder approach that points toward development and greater engagement with historically dissident and skeptical peoples. It carries fewer direct benefits for Nicholas Sarkozy’s government. Conspicuous operations designed to bolster political credentials in Paris and to “send messages” that are followed by backdoor deals will not address the local political and economic factors that make AQIM so dangerous.
At the recent intelligence conference hosted in Algeria, where Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Algeria gathered to meditate on ways to fight AQIM, regional states adopted the idea of using smugglers to track and capture AQIM types.. They also agreed to map out the smuggling routes AQIM uses and to share more intelligence. This gets closer to discriminating between the base problems in the area and the AQIM threat. More regional initiatives are needed to be truly effective against the problem. The lack of trust between Algeria, Mali and Mauritania in particular has roots in a complex of relations between Libya, Algeria and Morocco as well as Niger and Mali. The Libyans have declared their willingness to assist Mali in dealing with the Tuareg element; the Moroccans have tried to force their way into the process (likely in the interest of justifying more American aid money and weapons) via the Mauritanians in regional fora, for instance suggesting Morocco’s inclusion in the recent conference. The Algerians rejected the later suggestion, their state news service describing Morocco as a country “which has no place in the Sahel”. The same rivalries that make trade and political cooperation between the Maghreb countries so difficult undermine security cooperation and the pettiness of many of these spats undermines the often limited efforts already underway. Corruption and ulterior motives within these militaries and intelligence services also hinders trust and collective action.
By attacking settled governments from the periphery AQIM hopes to create crises of confidence by mixing kinetic assaults with psychological warfare; over-zealous responses, they hope, will drain resources and will while alienating tribal peoples within the periphery. As in old times, they reckon, they can eat away at the edges of the “corrupt juntas” or “vassals” (as AQIM likes to refer to Mauritania and Niger) and overturn or weaken the local governments, particularly Mauritania and northern Mali, which would make way for whatever system of “religious” governance they hope to impose. They hope to increase the Loss of Strength Gradient from the capitals and decrease it from their pickup trucks and camps; they hope to expand and control the traditional zones of dissidence. The problems AQIM has grafted itself onto is are old ones. So too are the factors limiting Sahel and Maghreb states from combating it more effectively.