Sunday, April 22, 2012

The one where Mali had a Coup D’état


A lot went wrong for Captain Amadou Sonogo and the military junta in the wake of their March 22nd coup d’état in Mali.  Maligned by international pressure and unable to secure any semblance of political leadership in Mali’s capital, Bamako, the military junta signed a peace accord on April 6th relinquishing control of the government.  The agreement, sponsored by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), required Sonogo and the junta to step down and return the country to civilian rule in exchange for immunity.  Since April 6th, Mali has witnessed the resignation of ousted president Amadou Toumani Touré and the appointment of Dioncounda Traore, Speaker of the Parliament, as the interim President – big steps considering that three weeks ago Mali remained embroiled in a violent coup.  Mr. Traore has vowed to reinstate democratic rule of law and recover territory recently lost to Tuareg rebels “ideally by peaceful mean, but by all-out war if necessary.”

The unfolding of events in Mali has been astounding.  It has placed the power and leverage of both regional cooperative mechanisms and international actors on full display. ECOWAS performed remarkably, choking the junta with sanctions until it acquiesced and now (at the time of this posting) overseeing Mali’s transition of power.  The broader international community acted in concert to support ECOWAS with the United States and Europe leading the field by suspending economic aid packages and threatening sanctions of their own.  While the international effort to reign in the coup should be applauded, potentially destabilizing domestic issues were left unaddressed by the international response, and could pose an even greater threat to Malian and regional stability than Capt. Sonogo’s power grab. The interim government faces a formidable opponent in the Tuareg rebels and a burgeoning humanitarian crisis in the north, both of which are likely to negatively affect hundreds of thousands of Malians.  These two factors could plunge Mali into a protracted crisis, one that neither the interim government nor the international community is equipped to handle, and one that could ripple across the region. 

Arguably, Capt. Sonogo’s justification for the coup was warranted.  Over recent months, Malian security forces have suffered a string of military defeats in Mali’s northern Sahel region.  The Tuareg rebels, recently bolstered by an influx of weaponry and battle hardened soldiers (courtesy of Col. Gaddafi’s failed struggle to hold onto power in Libya) dismantled the young and inexperienced Malian soldiers stationed in the north with stunning expediency. The Los Angeles Times explains that in the days immediately following the coup, “the Tuareg rebels took control of several key cities, including Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu, a dramatic advance that saw the collapse of Mali’s military in the north.” Capt. Sonogo touted the Malian military’s inability to retaliate against the rebels (reports indicate that Malian soldiers even ran out of ammunition during skirmishes) as the primary remonstration against the Malian government.  Sonogo citied the severe lack of equipment and experienced personnel in the north as well as “incompetence” on the part of President Touré as the root causes of the military’s failure to defeat the rebels. Furthermore, generals in Bamako reportedly viewed the Tuaregs as more of a chronic nuisance than an imminent threat, resulting in yawning gaps in understanding as to the gravity of the situation on the ground.

The military’s inability to assert control in the Sahel allowed the disparate groups in the north to coalesce their power under the Tuareg banner (which now comprises members of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), Malian Tuaregs, Algerian Tuaregs and Al-Qaeda linked Islamic groups including Ansar Dine, led by Ag Ghaly, and various other factions linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)). The organized Tuareg rebels took advantage of the military’s ineptitude and played their hand masterfully in the security vacuum that developed following the coup.  The Los Angeles Times goes on to explain that, “It took just a few short weeks of combat for the Tuareg rebels in Mali to achieve a century-old dream: conquering a huge swath of northern Mali that they see as their homeland.” The Tuareg rebels gained enough influence and territorial control from their “lightning advance” across northern Mali, that they have called for the establishment of an independent state proclaiming, “irrevocably the independent state of Azawad, starting from this day, Friday April 6, 2012”.  This proclamation has effectively split the country in half, placing Mali in a precarious situation. 

Mali’s interim government now faces two significant challenges; how to reconcile the Tuareg’s claim to Azawad and how to thwart the deepening humanitarian crisis in the Sahel.  Solving these issues will be equally as important as returning the country to civilian rule and may prove to be essential to the success of Mali’s new government.  However, these challenges cannot be accomplished without the explicit help of the international community. 

The international community has a vested interest in seeing the return of Malian administration in the northern Sahel region.  The rise of the Tuareg rebels and their links to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have stoked strong fears that continued instability in Mali’s north will create a new permissive environment in which Islamic extremists can operate. The United States regards Mali as "a leading regional partner in U.S. efforts against terrorism," and has committed resources to Mali under the auspices of the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCP).  However, there are concrete steps that the United States and willing international actors can take to bolster this counterterrorism alliance. The Al-Qaeda linked elements of the Tuareg uprising represent a minority amongst the group and could be effectively marginalized by leveraging the TSCP initiative focused on ‘discrediting fundamentalist ideology’.  NPR explains that, "Islamic fundamentalism is unlikely to go down well in a region that's dominated by the more tolerant Sufi school of Islam." Isolating the core fundamentalist elements amongst the Tuareg’s, through the auspices of the TSCP, could prove vital in mitigating the influence of AQIM in the Sahel. Consequently, mitigating Al-Qaeda’s influence will require a sustained effort by the Malian government and the support of the international community.

Courtesy The Economist
Bookending Mali’s current turmoil is the growing humanitarian crisis across Western Africa that could even rival the recent food crisis that besieged the Horn of Africa in 2011.  Recent violence in Mali has displaced large populations into neighboring Algeria, Mauritania, Niger, and Burkina Faso.  The European Crisis Response Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva explained that, “Many among the displaced were already on the edge of survival due to the Sahel food crisis, I fear that the recent violence will exacerbate further the food emergency both in northern Mali and in neighboring countries where refugees are flowing to areas of acute food insecurity.” The Tuareg uprising in northern Mali further complicates relief efforts in Mali provinces hardest hit by the food crisis.  The International Committee of the Red Cross explains, “Humanitarian work in northern Mali is a major challenge in the current climate, violence and looting have severely hampered the operations of a number of agencies.”  These competing factors have created an untenable situation in northern Mali, one that is likely to persist absent extraordinary efforts by the international community.  The European Commission offered this chilling assessment, “Unless there is rapid progress in the coming days to open the humanitarian space and allow in supplies of food an medicines to northern Mali, there will be a major humanitarian disaster.”

The response to the coup in Mali has created a mixed bag of outcomes, showing the effectiveness of international cooperation while highlighting that more must be done to comprehensively address Mali’s longstanding problems.  By providing decisive security support to Mali’s new government, international initiatives can help to manage the Tuareg crisis while working to re-establish an environment where humanitarian aid programs and funding can more effectively confront the deepening food crisis across the region. Mali has become an important proving ground for ECOWAS and the international community, but they must now recommit themselves to supporting the efforts of the interim government to help stabilize Mali, or risk turning this proving ground into a cautionary tale. 

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The one where Secretary Clinton went to Burma...

In a not so unexpected development, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton announced on Friday January 13, 2012 that the United States would fully restore diplomatic relations with Burma (Myanmar).  While the announcement date may jinx the entire thing, the move comes as the latest in a series of calculated steps (most notably Secretary Clinton’s landmark visit to Myanmar in December 2011) taken by the United States targeted at easing tensions with and propagating democracy in the Asian Pacific nation.  While we can speculate on how this move plays into President Obama’s new ‘Asia Pivot’ strategy, it is important to note that the Burmese government has made a surprising break from its repressive past...a hopeful moment that offers us a glimpse into how the United States might deal with some of the world’s more unsavory regimes.   

President Thein Sein’s shift towards democracy arguably started with the Union Solidarity and Development Party’s (USDP) announcement of its reformist intentions after winning the November 2010 elections.  Although these elections were almost universally regarded as a sham (USDP won 80% of the vote), they are widely viewed as having been the catalyst that sparked Burma’s post election transformations, offering opposition leaders a long desired public voice and a taste of powerful democratic tools; tools that sparked revolutions across the world in 2011. Since embarking on his self-coined path towards “disciplined democracy”, President Sein has made a number of promising first steps including the release of hundreds of political prisoners, signing a law that allows peaceful demonstrations, and inking a cease-fire agreement with Karen rebels (the same group that, a little over a year ago, was locked in a fierce battle with government forces in eastern Burma).  President Sein’s efforts are punctuated by the Burmese parliament’s approval of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s candidacy in the April by-election on a National League for Democracy (NLD) party ballot. President Sein explains in a recent interview with Lally Weymouth that his government’s, “reform measures are being undertaken based on the wishes of the people [who want] to see our country have peace and stability as well as economic development.”

But why the sudden change of heart? Did US and European sanctions make the Burmese military see the error of their repressive ways? I doubt it.  A host of sanctions enacted as a consequence of the Burmese military’s brutal suppression of the 1987 ‘8888 Uprisings’ have been in effect since 1990.  Freezing assets, limiting trade, and banning foreign investments have done little to foster political freedoms or improve Burma’s human rights record. In the previously mentioned Lally Weymouth interview, President Sein offers that, “[US and European] sanctions were aimed at harming our government but, actually, they harmed the interest of our people.” I know that sounds like a weak effort at regime propaganda, but there is a more salient point underneath President Sein’s snark…US and European sanctions have limited the average Burmese citizens access to foreign investment and international markets without gaining sufficient leverage to stave off repression. 

So, did the military finally get tired of beating monks and squashing rebellions?  It’s possible. The government held peace talks with rebels in the Thai-Burma border town of Hpa-an in December 2011.  These talks brought together a number of rebel groups including the Shan State Army-South and the Karen rebels, both of which have negotiated preliminary peace settlements with the government.  This point should not be overlooked.  These groups have been locked in fierce battles with the Burmese government for decades, and these former sworn enemies were able to sit across the table from one another and sign peace deals.  That’s pretty amazing progress.  But getting tired from 20 years of repression cannot be the only reason for Burma’s reforms.

Could this be a hedge against Chinese influence?  I think we are getting warmer!  John Blaxland, former Australian military attaché to Burma explains, “China obviously has a very important role to play in the future of Burma.”  China is Burma’s largest supplier of military equipment, and closest advocate on the international stage. The Burmese recognize the importance of their relations with China.  However, Blaxland theorizes that the Burmese “need some wiggle room.  They’re concerned that they are too beholden to the Chinese.”  If President Sein is smart and a little bit sneaky, I’m sure he realizes that better relations with the US and Europe affords him the ability to play the interests of western powers off on China, placing Burma in a very favorable position.  The other side of the coin is that Mr. Sein’s opportunistic efforts also open him up to enhanced scrutiny by the international community, a critical opening that will allow international actors to verify that President Sein is not using one hand to sign trade deals while using the other to flog a few monks. As for right now, the United States should take full advantage of improving relations, not only because they are the first promising signs of democratization to come out of Burma in years, but also because it offers the US the chance to turn the tide of Burma’s repressive past and reinvigorate relations with a former Asian Pacific ally.

While the reasoning behind Burma’s attitude shift is ultimately unknown, it offers the US a great opportunity to rethink its policies of engagement towards repressive regimes.  This rethink is critical not only for the creation of a durable and resilient peace with Burma, but also as a test case for dealing with stickier governments around the world.  There is room for a great deal of optimism here, but I am inclined to support a more guarded approach, for as Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi offers, “I believe the President wants reform, but he is not the only one in government.“  Hopefully the coming months will shed light on President Sein’s true intentions and whether his efforts at reform will endure.