Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

International Engagement

Mali, Afghanistan – Conflicts Worlds Apart? Parallels and Lessons to be Learnt

Thomas Ruttig 14 min

When jihadist groups took over the northern half of Mali last year and French troops intervened in January this year, a discussion ensued in the media and among analysts about whether Mali was, or would become, a ‘second’ or ‘African’ Afghanistan. Most found a comparison ludicrous. With Mali’s presidential election coming up on today, 28 July 2013, AAN’s Co-Director Thomas Ruttig gave the issue another look and found that both countries indeed have structural problems in common and, in both countries, Western intervention is characterised by short-termism and a focus on terrorism, neither of which tackle the deeper causes of conflict.

Mali-style "jirga" - Photo by: Medico International

“Comparisons with Afghanistan are inevitable when any Western country sends its military to war in a Muslim country where al-Qaeda has set up shop,” Time magazine wrote this January when French troops started their intervention in Mali, code named Opération Serval. The al-Qaeda or terrorism focus that often dominated the discussion about the conflicts in both countries is very narrow, though. Beyond it, a number of surprising parallels spring up between these two countries, two half-continents away from each other, despite the many obvious differences. Some of those parallels are grounded in colonial, post- and neo-colonial history.(1)

Both Mali and Afghanistan are multi-ethnic, landlocked countries shaped by colonially drawn, artificial borders. These borders cut through areas populated by large and originally nomadic peoples. The Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan (most are no longer nomads) are divided by the controversial Durand Line (on latest developments, see this previous AAN dispatch). The Tuareg – who prefer to be called Imushagh – roam the vast Saharan space divided among at least six states by border lines that look like they were drawn with a ruler on a large table in some far away European capital. Besides Mali, those are Niger, Chad, Algeria, Libya and Burkina Faso. In today’s Mali, however, the Tuareg constitute only two per cent of the country’s population (read here); other northern minorities are also involved in the jihadist insurgency.(2)

The Pashtuns, over decades, harboured irredentist aspirations of (re-)creating a cross-Durand Line ‘Pashtunistan’, planting the fear among Pakistan’s elites of a possible break-up of their relatively young country. While this movement seems to be less strong nowadays, with its last peak in the 1970s, its place has been taken by Islamist militancy. In Saharan West Africa, the Tuareg repeatedly rose up for self-determination in different countries. Their last – and botched – attempt happened when the Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA) seized the opportunity – provided by a military coup d’ètat in Mali’s capital Bamako that created a power vacuum – to unilaterally proclaim the independence of Mali’s northern half as ‘Azawad’ in April 2012. But the dream was over within a few months. By June last year, jihadist groups – Ansar Dine and Mujao, supported by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), initially allied with the armed Tuareg movement – had taken control of Azawad. These jihadists were less interested in independence and more in making the whole of Mali a sharia-based Islamic state. Some of the Tuareg leaders who joined the jihadists, for example, Ansar Dine leader Iyad ag Ghaly, have ideas that sound like the pipe dreams of those in Pakistan who still hope the Taleban will crush the idea of Pashtun reunification for good: Tuareg leaders see their movement as “an alternative to both the Malian nation-state, riddled with corruption and nepotism, and the political ideal of Tuareg independence”. And Ghaly’s supporters “are of the conviction that only their Salafist ideology can unify the various Tuareg clans, the different ethnic groups in the region, and even the whole of Mali” (source here).

The Tuareg rebellion had been powered by fighters and arms flown out of Libya after the overthrow of the Ghadhafi regime. Ghadhafi had backed Tuareg and other minorities in Libya’s neighbouring countries to the south;(3) in return, indigenous and external Tuareg fighters backed his regime but had to leave the country after their patron was toppled. Here, we have another key parallel: both Afghanistan and Mali are affected by and contribute to the conflicts in their regions and their overspills. To regulate these issues permanently, a regional solution is necessary, but the multitude of actors involved makes this an extremely difficult task.

In contrast to Mali, Afghanistan has never been a full-scale colony. During the twentieth century, it went through a number of mostly top-down modernisation attempts and conservative backlashes but was internally relatively stable up to the 1970s, trying to safeguard its neutrality between the two major post-World War II blocs. It became a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement, to which Mali also acceded after its independence from France in June 1960. Nevertheless, both countries became entangled in the Cold War, culminating in more than 30 years of extremely violent internal conflict in Afghanistan, compounded by two foreign, armed interventions. The first made the country a major battlefield in the last phase of the Cold War, the only one where Soviet troops were directly involved. The second, already in the post-Cold War era and led by US troops, made it the focus of the ill-conceived ‘War on Terror’, the echoes of which also can be sensed in the on-going French-led intervention in Mali.(4)

Mali, after decolonisation, had been spared Afghanistan’s experience with foreign interventions until this year. It did not remain entirely stable over the intervening decades, though. It went through a ‘socialist’ one-party system followed by a long military regime, starting with a coup in 1968, and repeated but relatively small-scale Tuareg rebellions which were crushed brutally.(5) Other coups followed, one in 1991 and two in 2012. The one in 1991, called the March Revolution because it led to the transition to a democratic system followed by free elections held in 1992, was triggered by a broad popular pro-democracy movement against the last military dictator, Moussa Traoré. With this, Mali stood at the forefront of the so-called “third wave” of democratisation in Africa and was hailed as a ‘model democracy’ in the continent.

Soon after independence, as the “Mali Federation”,(6) the country lost its access to the sea, when its partner in that construct, Senegal, departed on its own only two months later. Afghanistan lost its coast, in today’s Baluchistan, as a result of British colonial advance in the nineteenth century. Thus both countries’ exports depend on good relations with their neighbours, and Afghanistan in particular suffered under repeated phases of bad relations with Pakistan (some caused by itself) during which borders were closed and the economy suffered (more background on this here).

For Afghanistan, the door to possible democratisation opened much later, in 2001, but was crushed in the ‘War on Terror’, when fighting the insurgents became a priority over democratisation and the rule of law (more on this in my contribution to AAN’s 2012 e-book Snapshots of an Intervention here).

Both countries’ development over past decades was further influenced by a combination of ecological and economic factors. For decades, both have been hit by climate change, that led to water shortages and loss of agricultural land and nomads’ livestock. Mali has been at the core of several Sahel famines between 1968 and 1974 that killed up to 250,000 people. Afghanistan suffered from the same phenomenon in the same period, to a lesser extent – but with far-reaching consequences (read my AAN paper) and with less media coverage. Sinking ground-water levels all over Afghanistan as well as on-going desertification indicate that these trends are continuing.

The droughts affected one of the major export products of both countries: cotton. In the 1950s and 1960s, cotton contributed between 13.3 and 18.3 per cent to Afghanistan’s exports. In Mali, it is the second most important export commodity after gold, whose value constitutes over 70 per cent of exports. One quarter of the population depends on cotton for its livelihood; the crop contributes 15 per cent to total government revenues and around 8 per cent to the country’s gross domestic product.(7) However, the re-occurring phases of drought in both countries were accompanied by a collapse in world market prices (read here) and indirect import restrictions by the EU (in Mali’s case) and the US (for post-2001 Afghanistan) that hit the cotton farmers of both countries hard.(8) In his book Little America,(9) Washington Post journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran describes vividly how a whole series of US-financed development projects in the country’s major cotton region, Helmand, not only failed to raise production and exports and exacerbated social problems but, after 2001, blocked a revival of Afghanistan’s export cotton production for the sake of protecting the US market.

In Mali, the ecological problems and failed international aid led to an unequal development of its regions. While the north is one of the least-developed regions in all of Africa, a deep divide exists even in the south, creating what is also known from Afghanistan as “local grievances”. The region of Kayes has been particularly negatively affected, becoming Mali’s “key emigration region” according to German Mali analyst Sabine Eckart. She adds that this trend was exacerbated by displacement as a result of expanding mining operations. In general, Malians contribute a significant number to those working-age African males taking boats across the Mediterranean to Europe. Similar complaints of neglect – including about the un-even distribution of Western aid money – are known from different regions in Afghanistan, and Afghans, too, contribute majorly to international migrants’ movements (read here).

Also, the praise for Mali’s democracy seems to have come too early. The Observer’s Peter Beaumont writes that the West had been “at fault” over its “blithe acceptance of the ‘procedural’ version of democracy adopted by the country’s upper and middle classes in Bamako” from which large parts of the population feel excluded (read more here and here). Over the past decade, under President Amadou Toumani Touré, the country drifted back towards authoritarian rule. The government became “increasingly dysfunctional”(red here), and “relations between the centre of power in Bamako and the periphery rested on a loose network of personal, clientelistic, even mafia-style alliances” (read here). According to French analysts quoted in Le Monde diplomatique, those alliances included ministers, army and intelligence officers “close to ex-President Touré” and members of parliament. Beaumont calls the 2012/13 Mali events “the culmination of half a century of tensions among different groups . . . exacerbated by a . . . government playing competing interests off against each other”.

A development gap and conflicting interests did not only exist between Mali’s Black African south and the Tuareg/Arab north – there are mutual resentments with racist undertones, too – but “between the elites of the [multi-faceted] north” as well (read here). Instead of including them in a genuine search for solutions, Beaumont says, Mali’s post-dictatorial governments have followed what he calls a “militiatary” policy “that meant that different groups [were] armed to neutralise each other”. A similar approach has been taken by the US-led NATO troops in Afghanistan who, while attempting to strengthen and reform the regular armed forces, have constantly created semi-regular forces, like the Afghan Local Police, to short-cut the official forces’ shortcomings, only contributing to a militarisation of the society (read two AAN reports on this subject here and here).

At the same time, Mali’s “economic growth trailed off to virtually nothing . . . UNDP’s human development index ranked Mali lower than Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen”. At least one third of the foreign aid money disappeared “into dark channels” (read here). Similar problems prevail in Afghanistan. As AAN has reported in 2011, the “siphoning‐off of resources by current economic and political power‐holders . . . has profound effects on the stability and economic development of the country”. Aid effectiveness remains a concern, caused not only by “coordination and communication problems among the donors themselves and between the donors and the Afghan government” but also by over-proportional backflows of aid money into the donor countries. Last but not least, the international community itself was “fuelling corruption” by faulty contracting policies and lax oversight. (Find other reports on this problem here, here and here).

While Afghanistan continues to be the world’s major producer and exporter of opiates (and now again of hashish, see here), a situation that has remained unchanged and even escalated after the international intervention in 2001 (see an AAN report here), the international drug trade discovered the West African region, including Mali, comparatively late. “Since 2004, West Africa has become a major hub for cocaine trafficking, storage and distribution”, the monthly Le Monde diplomatique wrote early this year, and continues:

Drug trafficking brought major benefits: it helped with elections and real estate deals were financed through money laundering operations. . . . Many politicians came to arrangements with the traffickers. If an over-eager soldier stopped a convoy, he’d get a call from someone higher up telling him to let it through.

Also, as in Afghanistan, jihadist groups “exact tolls from [drug] convoys that cross their territory and, for a price, supply protection”; in Mali, it is mainly cocaine (read here).

In Mali, finally, mass protests triggered regime change by another military coup in 2012 which, in turn, set off a new Tuareg rebellion that caused the temporary partition of the country and, finally, the French-led military intervention. French troops continue to be involved in fighting in Mali (see here).

Today, both countries – Mali and Afghanistan – are weak, but not ‘failed’ or ‘collapsed’ states. Their governments’ implementation of the law is weak. At times they are not able and at other times not interested in doing so. In the latter case, the blurred state of the rule of law leaves spaces open in which governments themselves, or their local representatives and allies, can exert patronage over economically motivated networks.(10) Yvan Guichaoua, a Mali expert from the University of East Anglia argues that “northern Mali has in fact been a heavily governed space, yet not by the standards of a rational legal system” under the post-1991 governments. The Guardian’s Ian Birrell further criticises that “the US and France invested too much faith into an ineffective democracy riddled with corruption” in Mali. This definitely can be said about many ‘democratisation’ processes in ‘post-conflict’ countries.

Apart from these geographic, historical and development parallels, another similarity lies, as Rita Abrahamsen from University of Ottawa wrote early in the year, “in the danger of outside actors misunderstanding and ignoring local situations and struggles”. Many in the West, governments, analysts and media, predominantly looked at the new conflict in Mali through the prism of al-Qaeda linked terrorism, and the jihadists getting an upper hand in Northern Mali was what triggered the armed intervention. Reports from Mali indicate, however, that large parts of the country’s population, including its civil society, saw the main problem as the threat of a break-up of the country and, in this context, did not distinguish between the jihadist and the Tuareg groups (examples in this analysis). According to journalist Andrea Böhm, that France forced the Malian government to negotiate peace with the MNLA while fighting the jihadists upset many Malians (read here).

For many long-time Mali observers, holding the forthcoming presidential elections on 28 July (with a second round on 11 August, if necessary) comes too early. Charlotte Wiedemann, another long-time Mali watcher, lists the many problems: the lack of reliable voters lists, an unstable security situation in the north with continuing terrorist attacks and armed clashes, hundreds of thousands of returnees still on the move, doubt about whether the refugees abroad (mainly Tuaregs) will be able to cast their votes properly and that the date has been set during the start of the rainy season when the farmers in this drought-stricken country cannot afford to miss a single drop. Many of them will miss the vote. She adds that the continuation of the state of emergency until shortly before the 20-day election campaign was an attempt to silence those in the political opposition who criticised the early elections. Much of this sounds like the lists of shortcomings of the last Afghan election cycle (read two reports by AAN on the subject here and here), which have influenced the recent discussions around two key electoral laws but not fully addressed them (read AAN dispatch here).

Only a last-minute peace deal between the central government and Tuareg rebels opened the way for elections to be held in the north in the first place (read here). Fighting (a report about the most recent ones here) and attempts to sabotage the elections (read here) are continuing, however, while the elections preparations are already marred by fraud claims.

Wiedemann attributes Mali’s election timing to pressure from the EU. Brussels had stated it would unblock aid money, which constitutes one third of Mali’s budget, only after elections were held. She also points out that Western countries need a ‘legitimate government’ as a partner for their anti-terror policies; an argument known from current debates about the US-Afghan Bilateral Security and Defence Agreement (more in this AAN dispatch). Under these circumstances, she fears, the re-establishment “of that façade democracy looms that has led to the crisis in the first place”.

Wiedemann pleads instead for starting a “reconciliation policy in which no ethnic groups gets a favoured status: this time no army posts as reward for the rebels, no exclusive negotiations between the state and the armed groups, but a societal dialogue. . . . The Tuareg will be part of it but better not represented by the MNLA.” Others argue that the inclusion of the MNLA is crucial for the stabilization of some of the northern areas and ‘preconditions that the MNLA disarm before dialogue are dangerous’. Also problematic is the West’s cooperation with an unreformed government army that is accused of “serious . . . retaliatory violence [that] appear[s] to be targeting members of various ethnic groups perceived to be supportive of the armed groups”. Reforming security forces while they are fighting a war is difficult, though, as the Afghan example shows (see an AAN report about this issue here).

The contours of a few lessons to be learnt start becoming visible. As the examples of Mali and Afghanistan show, it seems impossible to end conflicts that have multi-facetted causes and have been dragging on over decades with the currently available tool-box of outside interventions. This is even more the case as the use of these tools is often restricted by short-termism, the domination of donors’ domestic agendas and the insufficient and untimely (read: too late) allocation of resources. However, main actors in both conflicts continue to have trouble identifying lessons and learning from them, since this would require fully recognising and acknowledging mistakes made.(11)

Both Mali and Afghanistan show that the amount of resources invested (the ‘input’) is not the yardstick to measure success and that ‘classic’ output criteria like GDP and export growth are insufficient because they mask social gaps. Those gaps, as the example of Mali shows, can become causes for conflict. Balanced development among a country’s regions is necessary, but the internal actors need to agree on which form it takes, and not the elites (however they are defined or constituted). In the same way, merely holding (more or less) successful elections is insufficient to guarantee stability and development. This way, just façade, or ‘procedural’, democracies might be established.(12) Political institutions, however, need to represent the diversity of a country, in ethno-lingual, political but also social aspects. Both societies, Mali and Afghanistan, have instruments at their disposal to achieve societal consensus – the Afghan (Loya) Jirgas and the Malians inter-ethnic conflict regulating mechanisms and their post-1991 national dialogues -, but overuse and manipulation as well as a mere reproduction of elite rule undermine their legitimacy and effectiveness.

More generally, progress in political inclusiveness, for example, could be a good measure for whether internal solutions and external contributions to them are successful or not – taking into consideration that established democracies are not built in a few years. Not in Switzerland, or Mali or Afghanistan.

This text was inspired by a podium discussion organised by the German aid organisation Medico International on 22 March 2013 in Frankfurt/Main in which the author participated (full video here, in German). I base my points on Mali on texts by various experts on that country; any wrong conclusion is exclusively my fault.

(1) One similarity is that both countries were famous destinations for special kinds of cultural, non-mass tourism. Western tourists visited Timbuktu, the centre of Islamic learning in West Africa, also for its architectonic treasures and later for the famous “Desert Blues” world music festival. At the same time, Kabul was a destination for European hippies on the way to India or Nepal, looking for freedom and cheap drugs. When Afghanistan was discovered as a destination in itself, there was a regular bus connection between Munich and Kabul (return trip cost of 95 dollars; see here). Less known but more importantly, Kabul also was the dream weekend trip destination for Pakistanis during the 1950s and 1960s, with its entertainment opportunities, like (a few) discos and movie theatres, then unthinkable in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan founded in 1947 after the partition of India.

(2) A relatively new jihadist group on the scene, Mujao (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa), recruits ‘its core membership from the Lamhar tribe [in Algeria], supplemented by Sahrawis [from the Moroccan-annexed Western Sahara], Songhai and Peuls’, the latter two being minorities in Northern Mali (read here).

(3) This support started in the 1970s when Ghadhafi financed the rebellion of the Tubu in Chad. The Tubu leader, Hissène Habre, later became that country’s dictatorial president (1982–90) and has recently been arrested in his exile in Senegal for human rights crimes committed during his rule.

(4) The French troops are currently in a process of handing over to Malian troops and UN blue-helmets; their number will be down from recently 4,000 to 2,000 by September and 1,000 by the end of the year; the latter 1,000 will “remain . . . on Malian territory for an undetermined period of time to carry out counter-terrorism operations if necessary” according to the French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (see here and here).

(5) “Martial law was imposed, wells were poisoned, flocks shot – and the women of fled rebels forcefully married to officers from the south. . . . Among the Tuareg, this bloody subjugation causes a collective trauma which was inherited by the coming generation and alienated many permanently from the [Malian] state”, writes Charlotte Wiedemann (here).

(6) In this federation, the Tuaregs were to have autonomy, including a judicial system based on Islamic law (see here).

(7) Figures for Afghanistan from Eberhard Rhein and A. Ghanie Ghaussy, Die wirtschaftliche Entwicklung Afghanistans 1880–1965, Opladen 1966; Willy Kraus (ed), Steigerung der landwirtschaftlichen Produktion und ihre Weiterverarbeitung in Afghanistan, Meisenheim am Glan 1972; figures for Mali, here and here.

(8) Both the US and EU subsidise their own cotton producers, thereby creating hurdles for non-US and non-EU cotton exporters. As a result, cotton producers in the countries of the South lose 9.5 billion dollars of income annually, according to the World Bank and the ICAC (International Cotton Advisory Committee) (source here).

(9) Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Little America, Random House 2012.

(10) In the Spectator, guest author Aaron Ellis added another interesting thought:

Failed states are the worst places for terrorists to set up a safe haven. There is no infrastructure that they can use, the security situation is just as dangerous for them as it is for anyone else, and they are usually drawn into murderous local politics. Instead of plotting world domination, groups like al-Qaeda find themselves wasting valuable time and resources dealing with these problems. They dropped plans to base themselves in Somalia in the 1990s because they found it was just too chaotic. Many criticised the move to Afghanistan for the same reason.

Too often, those who warn about the dangers of failed states and a repeat of 9/11 forget that the country was not Bin Laden’s preferred choice, but a last resort. It was not its failure that made it an option, but the protection offered to him by the powerful warlords he had built up relationships with during the 1980s.

(11) Matt Waldman has recently attempted to list the mistakes committed by the US in Afghanistan, which can be read here.

(12) One of the details the planners of the first post-Taleban election could have learnt from post-1991 Mali was that those politicians who ruled the country in the interim period after the dictatorship was toppled were not allowed to run in the elections they were preparing, in order to avoid that they have an incumbent’s advantage. Find two paper of this author about the mistakes committed during the post-2001 political process in Afghanistan here and here.


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