A small, but violent group of radical Islamists emerge from remote desert enclaves to join forces with aggrieved locals and capture large swaths of land while taking control of large, historic cities.
That statement is not only a summary of recent events in Iraq, but also of nearly identical events that unfolded in the central African nation of Mali in 2012.
Al-Qeada in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar Dine and similar radical Islamist groups based in the Sahara Desert struck a deal with the Tuareg people of northwest Mali to join forces in an attempt to overthrow the central government and establish an Islamic religious state. In Mali, the Tuaregs are a discriminated against minority group and have specific grievances against the central government in Bamako, dominated by black, ethnic Bambaras, who they accuse of depriving northern Mali of representation, investment and development. Skin color and historic ethnic tensions drive much of the dispute.
The Islamist fighters of AQIM and Ansar Dine seized on these grievances in Mali to team up with the Tuaregs and over the course of nearly a year, their combined force capture nearly all of northern Mail including the key cities of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu. The motivated Islamists totally overwhelmed the Malian army, many of whom deserted or retreated quickly. By January 2013, the Islamists pushed south to within a few miles of Mopti, a strategic town from which the fighters could make a run at the capital, Bamako.
Meanwhile, the alliance between radical Islamists and the locals fractured as the Jihadis quickly sidelined their Tuareg colleagues and imposed extremely harsh Sharia Law on the local population. Once they Jihadists were done using the Tuaregs for their own gain, they disposed of them. The Tuaregs who had once worked with the Islamists were now fighting back against them.
Nearby African nations were alarmed at the brutality and rapid advance of the Islamists in Mali as were the French (Mali's former Eurpoean colonial power). France committed about 4,000 boots on the ground in addition to overwhelming air power. Chad and Nigeria combined to send an additional 3,000 troops and various other west African nations sent another 4,500 in total.
The French military's technological and tactical superiority quickly stopped the Islamist advance and reversed the course of the conflict. Superior French and Chadian group troops routed the Islamists and recaptured all the Malian cities and territory that had previously been lost.
A smaller scale conflict continues in Mali to this day, though the country remains unified and some political progress has been made. The final chapter of this conflict has not yet been written and the original grievances that led to the Islamist advance still exist.
The actors are different in Iraq, but the storyline is the same. The aggrieved Sunnis teamed up with Islamist rebels from the desert to fight the Shia government and capture land and cities. If the Sunni/Islamist alliance fractures and U.S. or Great Britian play the roll of France while Iran plays the roll of Chad in this story, the outcome will probably be similar as well: a route of the Islamists.
Based on the lessons of Mali, we can ascertain that western military intervention combined with regional forces from countries like Iran or Turkey would quickly route ISIL and restore a tense unity to Iraq's fractured country. However, as in Mali, this is not a long term solution. ISIL, like AQIM and Ansar Dine, was made possible by the central government's negligence of a rival minority group. In Mali, the black Africans neglected the lighter skinned Tuaregs. In Iraq, the Shia neglected the minority Sunnis and Kurds. Defeating the brutal Islamist fighters is important on humanitarian grounds, but is far from a solution to the long term problems that gave rise to them in the first place.
It is easy to talk about a political process that keeps Iraq in one piece with a unity, power sharing government overseeing a federalist-like system, a la Bosnia-Herzegovina. It is much harder to envision how this will happen in a part of the world where today's maps don't match up at all with any historical traditions or religious and ethnic divisions. Add Syria into the equation and a regional peace based on current maps is nearly implausible.
The area known today as Iraq has usually been dominated by regional forces, some that were centered in Baghdad, others that were not. Persians, Turks, and Arabs from the west are among those who dominated culture and governance in modern day Iraq. Rarely in the entire history of the region has Iraq been a stable, independent territory. When it was in the 1900s, it was brutally ruled as a colony of Britain or by blood thirsty dictators.
Iraq's current situation has the hallmarks of Mali's 2012-'13 crisis and may have the same short term outcome if western and regional powers intervene. However, both countries are grappling with an uncertain future created by a tumultuous colonial history. One of the great questions of our generation may be whether countries like Mali, Iraq and Syria can remain unified countries under one government or whether they will have to fracture and break down as Yugoslavia and Sudan did. Iraq's future will not be determined by the U.S. or Great Britain any more than Mali's future will be determined by France. In the end, Malians, Iraqis and any other modern nation-state in civil conflict will have to decide for themselves how to proceed into the future and regional forces will replace traditional western powers as the key influencers in that process.
As Americans, we must uphold our responsibility as world leaders to stop genocidal campaigns in these countries as they wrestle with their futures. However, we must resist the temptation to force an unnatural outcome that benefits our interests in the short term only to create more problems for ourselves down the road. Instead, we need to work with other major global and regional powers in safely shepherding these nations through the treacherous course of self-determination. The last generation of global leaders had to safely dismantle the Soviet Union and it's leftover Republics in Europe and Central Asia. Our generation may be the one to oversee a re-imagining of nation-states in the Middle East and north Africa.
Then again, maybe Mali and Iraq are totally unrelated and not part of a broader geopolitical trend. Maybe the helter skelter colonial maps drawn up by Europeans to keep local tribes divided against each other will hold for the long term. Maybe the world will be willing to police these divided countries forever.
U.S. foreign policy should not be created around wishes and pipe dreams. Stopping the violent Islamists in Iraq is the humanitarian thing to do for the sake of basic human decency. However, bombing old enemies back into the desert is not a policy and praying for the Shia, Sunni and Kurds to see eye to eye is not a policy. Restructuring part of our foreign policy to help shepherd antiquated nation states into the modern era and create sensible borders for the 21st Century and beyond is a major investment that can pay generous dividends for generations to come.
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