Aisha Ahmad is an assistant professor at the University of Toronto, director of the Islam and Global Affairs Initiative at the Munk School and author of Jihad & Co.: Black Markets and Islamist Power
As Canadian troops prepare for their new deployment to the war-torn country of Mali, much has been said about restoring Canada’s reputation on the world stage. But on the ground, the restive northern deserts of Mali will present a formidable challenge for our forces. Three key things make Mali the deadliest peacekeeping mission in the world.
First, Mali is awash with ethnic and tribal warfare that can seem near-incomprehensible to outsiders. Many analysts have grossly oversimplified the conflict as Tuareg separatists and Islamist rebels fighting against the Malian government. This is dangerously wrong. Canada must understand the actual fault lines of conflict on the ground, or we will risk accidentally taking sides in an ethnic war.
To start, most of Mali’s armed groups fall into one of two major coalitions: the pro-government Platform and the pro-separatist Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA). Both of these coalitions are comprised of ethnic factions fighting over the spoils of a future negotiated settlement. Although Platform and CMA have officially signed a fledgling 2015 peace deal, the factions within these coalitions regularly fight each other, splinter and switch sides.
While each of these local factions is defined by its ethnic identity, there is no clear ethnic basis for the two coalitions. It is wrong to think that CMA is all Tuareg, or that Platform is anti-Tuareg. One of the most powerful militias in the Platform is the Groupe autodéfense touareg Imghad et alliés (GATIA), a Tuareg armed group that regularly fights against the CMA. There are also non-Tuareg armed groups within the CMA, which joined the separatists against the state hoping they would get a bigger slice of the pie in the peace negotiations.
The result of this hyper-fragmentation is a conflict map full of unexpected team-ups and strange alliances straddling ethnicities. Even more than in the Afghan mission, Canadians will find themselves engaging with Malian ethnic and tribal factions that are using the UN peacekeeping mission to bolster their positions vis-à-vis their local rivals. The bitter lessons learned from the disastrous 1993 mission in Somalia must be applied here, lest Canadian troops find themselves mired in another bewildering ethnic quagmire.
Secondly, while Platform and CMA clash, the Islamists in northern Mali have embarked on a unity campaign. Last year, Tuareg Islamist leader Iyad Ag Ghaly brought together multiple local groups into a new Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, known by the abbreviation JNIM, which has built a powerful shadow presence. JNIM holds territory in parts of the northern Kidal region, and in the past few months, it has flexed its muscles by destroying both CMA and Platform checkpoints in the Timbuktu region. As Canada supports counterterrorism efforts in northern Mali, it will be aiming for these surreptitious jihadists.
Yet, for many Malians in the northern regions who are fed up with the in-fighting and abuse by Platform and CMA, these jihadists are the solution to the problem of fragmentation and insecurity. JNIM is more unified and disciplined than CMA and Platform and has invested in providing governance and public services for local communities. Although its ultraconservative brand of Islam is foreign to most Malians, its ability to provide law and order, remove checkpoints, prevent roving banditry and facilitate business life makes the jihadists an attractive option. The fact that Canada’s mission targets JNIM may indeed provoke a backlash from local populations that feel more secure under the Islamists.
Thirdly, Canadian forces are entering the heart of Mali’s volatile war economy, and the armed groups in the region where Canada will be based are implicated in criminal networks that traffic narcotics, humans and weapons across the region. The fact is, these ethnic militias are directly profiting from the political chaos. Control over lucrative trafficking routes is a key driver of clashes between Platform and CMA, especially in the province of Gao, where Canadian forces will be primarily stationed.
Along the main road from Gao to Kidal, both CMA and Platform checkpoints litter the road. There are also secret off-road routes, which allow powerful ethnic factions to evade the checkpoints and muscle through to the border regions. UN peacekeepers are working alongside – not against – these ethnic militias, hoping to support the paper ceasefire between them and prevent an Islamist takeover. These ethnic factions therefore enjoy the support of foreign forces, and now our Canadian troops, as they fight against their ethnic rivals and engage in criminal business.
This is a simple snapshot of the conflict landscape that Canada is entering. As our forces prepare for the challenges ahead, serious questions must be asked of our government about how to ensure that Canadian blood and treasure are not wasted, and that we do not leave Mali worse off than when we arrived. Every single tough lesson from Afghanistan, Somalia and Rwanda must be brought to bear.