October 21, 2012

Mali is Not the New Somalia

When Northern Mali was overtaken by a couple months back, I assumed at the very outset that Somalia had something to offer.  After all, Somalia had just crawled out of 21 years of war, 6 of which were under the domination of extremist militant group al-Shabaab.  As the UN, EU, and US look toward military intervention in Mali, their reliance upon Somalia as a model is not a good idea.  

The Taureg Rebels of Northern Mali

Why Mali is Not the New Somalia

1. The Rise to Power 
Al-Shabaab was the police force of the widely supported Union of Islamic Courts that quickly rose to power upon the collapse of the UIC.  Consequently it was already an organized force for governance, recruitment, and community support.  As an organizational structure embedded in the community, it had a distinct advantage.

The Taureg rebels are local, however they maintain an evolving organizational structure and are imposing a rule of law and social conventions upon an unwilling population.


2. The Message
Al-Shabaab maintained a message of Nationalism supported by Sharia to overcome tribal strife.  To support al-Shabaab was to support the emergence of a new Somali state, not a direct means to support their extremist ideology.

In Mali the rebels seek an independent state.  Separatism and religious fundamentalism are a potent mix and do more to arouse support from the fringes of society than from the center.

3. The End of Shabaab
The collapse of al-Shabaab was influenced by military action, but military action was not the cause for their undoing.  Rather the collapse of al-Shabaab was the consequence of multiple variables occurring at the same time.  Environmental drought forcing widespread famine and thus undermining Shabaab's financial tax-based infrastructure was a critical element in their demise.   Furthermore, conflict in Mogadishu between Shabaab and AMISOM had become embedded into protracted trench warfare with minimal gains to either side.  Shabaab is stronger when more mobile, and the collapse of the the environment and financial assets hurt their supply lines.  It was to their economic and tactical advantage to resort to loosely-distributed hit and run tactics.

Comparatively, reliance upon outside military intervention in Mali is only part of the formula to remove the Taureg rebels from power.  Already there is an emphasis on targeting leadership, an unfortunate decision, given its poor history of success with other organizations.

4. To militarize or to pacify?
EU is moving toward training fighters in Mali. Haven't we learned from Afghanistan, Syria,  Libya, or Mexico?  Injecting weapons into a conflict zone, no matter how how much attention is paid to specifying the recipients, simply results in more weapons in the conflict zone.  It escalates the conflict and in an era where protracted ad-hoc terrorism is always the endpoint, why facilitate the market of war?  It was long known that in Somalia, AMISOM soldiers would frequently sell their ammunition for cash, which of course ended up in the hands Shabaab fighters.

Perhaps a potent strategy would be to demilitarize the region more than strengthen it.  HUMINT becomes an essential element in the mix, to understand how the rebels get their resources, and to map the structural underpinnings of their operation.  But getting these answers is not rocket science.  As I learned from doing similar work regarding the economics of al-Shabaab, it simply is a matter of asking the right questions to the right people. 


Designing a non-military solution to Mali
Of course I don't want to give away all the answers, but there are some obvious opportunities within the Mali conflict for widespread stabilization and transformation.  But I can say that Regional Science contains a few relavant ideas, and a good starting point is regarding gravity analysis.  But beyond that, utilizing market interventions among rebels isn't a new idea.  In fact, al-Shabaab applied a similar tactic against the Somali Transitional Federal Government.   I'm not advocating embargoes on Mali, as those never work, but rather, we to analyse and manipulate market forces.  If there is anything to learn from Somalia to use in Mali, perhaps we should look not at how Shabaab was defeated, but rather, we should ask how did they stay in power for so long?