What many observers do not appreciate is that northern Mali forms part of the Sahara: an internally coherent social-political and cultural space with a long history of internal political struggles and alliances. National borders within this space are politically disputed and create opportunities for smuggling, but do not in any way restrict the movement of goods or people, allowing fighters to easily move from country to country, with or without the tacit support of state organizations.
The borders and border conflicts between Saharan states and peoples have never disrupted Saharan tribal political and commercial relations. The trans-Saharan and intra-Saharan trade has been strongly revived in the past decades in the form of international smuggle, implicating customs officers, soldiers, bureaucrats and politicians of the various Saharan states, or they look the other way in exchange for a share in the profits.
The various trade and smuggling networks in the Sahara are not necessarily as strongly connected to the different Saharan political movements as is generally thought, but they are at least facilitating the logistics of these movements at present. At the same time, they have provided the populations of northern Mali with a minimum of affordable bare necessities over the past year of occupation.
In addition to this commerce, the political world of tribal feuds and alliances has remained alive as well and plays an important part in the current conflict. The living areas and political domains of these tribes often stretch over national borders. The Arab Lamhar tribe, believed to be leading in MUJWA, for example, has many connections and tribe members living in southern Algeria. The same holds for so-called 'Mauritanian Arabs' in AQIM, many belong to tribes which have always lived dispersed between West Sahara, Mauritania, Algeria and Mali. They are not so much foreign as they are simply choosing between nationalities, while sometimes holding multiple ones.
Trade, tribal loyalty and jihad are closely intertwined. These political alliances have gained shape in the form of the MNLA, Ansar Dine, the MUJWA, and AQIM in the past year, but the differences between these movements remain subtle and dependent on tribal alliances, which explain the dynamics of the factional splits and regroupings we have witnessed, with first one group rapidly gaining dominance and then another, depending on where the commercial and political interests of the Saharan communities lie.
However impressive the advance of Operation Serval might have looked, the French and African troops move at turtle’s pace in comparison with the high-speed guerrilla tactics of their adversaries. Moreover, where the forces of Operation Serval are bound by national borders, their mujahideen opponents feel no such restriction. By the time the French arrived in Timbuktu, the various movements in northern Mali had had ample time to reorganize themselves, and withdraw men and materiel into the desert, if need be over the borders. However, while Serval in no ways restricts illegal movements, the closing of Mali's northern borders has led to the disruption of legal trade in food supplies, leading to scarcity and price increases. Thus while the positive effects on international security are yet to be seen, the immediate negative effects on the security of the local nomadic population is already apparent as Serval has aggravated the humanitarian crisis.
The ECOWAS allies have no chance of effectively beating the mujahideen, but they might manage to spread them over the various Saharan states, until the situation is ripe for them to return to northern Mali, or until the situation in southern Libya is rotten enough to take over local power in ways not unlike we have seen in Mali in the last year. Permanent drone and air warfare, as waged in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area, will undoubtedly lead to many civilian casualties, strengthening support for the mujahideen as it does in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
What France and its allies should realize is that they are not fighting a limited containment operation in northern Mali against 'foreign fighters', who are clearly differentiated from local Tuareg. They will be fighting a war in the Sahara against coalitions of various Saharan political factions and economic networks, of national, tribal, economic and jihadi-ideological nature. Unless this viewpoint is taken and unless all the various alliances, conflicts, and political contestations in the Sahara are taken into account, any solution to the current crisis in Mali will be ephemeral.
Baz Lecocq is a faculty member in the Department of History at Ghent University.