"Why study the Tuareg insurgency?" People ask me this question in a variety of ways, from the polite "Oh that's very interesting, how did you pick that topic?" to the blank stare I receive after I explain to someone what my thesis is about. Obviously every conflict deserves to be studied, and I'd go nuts if I forced myself to study Iraq in depth for the next five months. In this post I'll explain why I picked this specific conflict to study and what I think the Tuareg insurgencies can teach us, specifically in comparing insurgent/COIN effectiveness, and looking at the impact of environmental change, smuggling, resource extraction, and U.S. involvement in local conflicts.
Over this past winter break, I was lazing around my parents' house watching the mediocre Matthew McConaughey/Penelope Cruz movie Sahara. In it, McConaughey is traipsing about the Sahara looking for buried treasure while Penelope Cruz is trying to find starving Africans to save. On the way they run into some rebels (in Hollywood, African governments are usually bad and the rebels are usually good).
I had just finished reading T. E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and so the prospect of studying a desert insurgency caught my interest. While watching the movie I decided to poke around Wikipedia to see whether there are any active insurgencies in the Sahara, and I found the entry for the Second Tuareg Rebellion. I had heard of the Tuareg because my mother is involved in African art and the Tuaregs have very good silversmiths. Reading the article, a couple things jumped out at me.
The Wikipedia article treats the conflicts in Mali and Niger as essentially the same conflict. While I'm now finding that the situations in Mali and Niger have a couple major differences, it's still a good opportunity to study the evolution of a transnational insurgency and compare counterinsurgency policies between Mali and Niger. Because every insurgency is different from every other insurgency, it can be difficult to draw comparisons between, say, Malaya and Vietnam, to see which strategy was more effective. This is true in all military analysis but especially so in studying insurgencies as politics matters much more. However due to the close links between Tuaregs in Mali and Niger, it will be possible to make some direct comparisons between the counterinsurgency strategies of Mali and Niger.
Another reason to study this conflict is because it involves some factors that I think will become more important drivers of conflict in the future. The first of these is environmental change. The Tuareg nomadic lifestyle is highly dependent on the environment. The desertification of the Sahel is putting more pressure on both nomads and farmers as they compete for shrinking resources. Global climate change promises that environmental change will be a significant driver of conflict (I've written more on this, for example here).
Second, the role of smuggling is important in the Sahara. The BBC program Secrets in the Sand gives a good overview of how smuggling is funding warlords like Mokhtar Belmokhtar, but also provides the backbone for local economies. If smuggling is eliminated through counter-terrorism programs, economies in Mali and Niger will be devastated. The importance of smuggling in this conflict provides a good backdrop on which to examine the "war as crime/crime as war" debate.
One of the few legitimate economic activities in the Sahara is resource extraction. For the Tuareg this means uranium deposits in Niger. One of the grievances of the MNJ rebel group is that the Tuareg don't see enough revenue from the uranium that the French uranium mining company Areva extracts. On the other hand the Nigerien government/military believes that Areva has paid MNJ leaders to attack rival uranium companies. Obviously the politics of resource extraction has relevance to Iraq (oil), Nigeria (oil), Sierra Leone (diamonds), Congo (everything), etc.
Finally, the U.S. has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the Sahara by training local militaries. Under the logic of "Phase Zero" operations, the Pentagon hopes that by assisting local militaries, local conflicts will never blow up big enough to require outside intervention by the U.S. This money is given on the assumption that Al Qaeda exists in the Sahara, which itself is a controversial assertion. In researching the current Tuareg insurgency, I'll be able to simultaneously evaluate the effectiveness of this policy.
In addition to these reasons, the notion of studying a conflict that nobody else knows anything about appeals to me for a couple reasons. First, I get to do a lot of original research, although admittedly not as much as I'd like seeing as I don't have the funds or language skills to do any fieldwork. Also, one of academia's big contributions to society can be studying obscure things on the off-chance that they become important to a broader segment of society. If I ever end up working for some think tank or agency, I won't have the freedom to study whatever obscure conflict I want - better use that freedom now.