The West chooses war in Mali

January 15, 2013

David Whitehouse explains the backdrop to France's intervention in a former colony.

FRENCH AIRCRAFT, supported by Special Forces on the ground, attacked rebels in Mali over the weekend in an effort to halt their advance from the country's Northern region further into the South. France's President François Hollande cast aside his pledge to leave direct military intervention to African forces, saying that the offensive would "last as long as necessary."

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta confirmed reports that Washington is supporting the French offensive with drone intelligence. Defense officials added that the Pentagon is considering providing in-flight refueling and other logistical support, but refused to say whether the drones over Mali are armed.

The West has rushed in to prop up a Malian state that has been collapsing under pressure from the Northern insurgency. Rebels from the Tamasheq-speaking minority known as Tuaregs led an offensive against Malian troops last spring. Within a few months, though, Tuareg insurgents were joined by international jihadist groups and Taureg former mercenaries, who flowed into Mali from Libya after the fall of Muammar al Qaddafi in November of 2011.

Smoke billows after a French air strike in Mali
Smoke billows after a French air strike in Mali

As the rebels gained the upper hand, army Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo mounted a coup on March 21 against Mali's elected President Amadou Toumani Toure, declaring that Toure was mishandling the civil war.

The coup aggravated the disarray among Malian soldiers, allowing the rebels to deal them a smashing defeat and take control of the country's vast Northern desert region. The army is still shattered, and the government in Bamako, a Southern city, is unstable and weak. Sanogo has already replaced the coup government with a new one.

The latest president, Dioncounda Traore, declared a state of emergency after the rebel advance and invited France to intervene.

As the French continued air strikes, members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) moved to speed up deployment of troops to Mali, promising 2,000 soldiers within 10 days. Most troops would come from Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Togo, according to the New York Times.

In late December, the United Nations Security Council authorized ECOWAS, with Western help, to assist the Malian army in taking control of the North away from the rebels. The U.S. is the main funder of the ECOWAS mobilization, although U.S. law prohibits the Obama administration from "direct" support for Mali's coup government.

The French claimed to have killed 120 rebels in the assault to take back the village of Konna, and doctors at a hospital in rebel-held Timbuktu confirmed that casualties were high. Al-Jazeera reports at least 11 civilian casualties, including three fleeing children.

Rebels counterattacked on Monday, driving Malian troops out of a small garrison town southwest of the previous battle. A spokesman for one of the larger Islamist militias said the purpose of the raid was to throw the army off balance, not to drive South toward the capital. "We're going to lead our own war," said the spokesman. "They won't decide what kind of war we will fight."

France began the year with 600 ground troops in Mali, mostly in Bamako. Before the rebels made their advance, the government had already sent supplies and personnel to forward positions in Séveré--near the area where the fighting was to take place, according to Radio France International. After the attacks began, Le Monde reported that the French planned to enlarge its ground force to 2,500 within a few days.

THE WESTERN media have portrayed the Northern rebels in Mali as radicals affiliated with al-Qaeda, publicizing the application of harsh punishments, including the amputation of hands and feet.

The roots of the insurgency, however, lie not in ideology but in the political and economic marginalization of the Tuareg minority.

Suffering from drought and forcible relocation by state--not to mention the creeping influence of commercial agriculture and motorized transport--Tuaregs have largely been driven out of their nomadic, pastoral way of life. Impoverished for decades, Tuaregs now depend on remittances from family members who have become migrant workers throughout North Africa. Some found jobs as mercenaries for Qaddafi, which explains the connections of the rebels to Libya.

The Tuareg have risen up four times since Mali became an independent country in 1960. At the conclusion of the 1996 uprising, the Malian state traded much-needed economic aid to Northern people for peace with Tuareg rebels. Thousands of Tuaregs were made a part of the Malian army and paid salaries, and public works projects were begun, building schools, hospitals and electrical infrastructure.

The rebels learned the lesson well: Economic development hasn't been forthcoming from the Malian state except when it is explicitly traded in return for an end to hostilities.

The insurgency now includes both Tuareg elements and Arabic-speaking Islamists. Tamasheq speakers themselves are divided mainly between the secular MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) and the Islamist Ansar Dine. Iyad ag Ghali, Ansar Dine's founder, "has deftly positioned himself as the most radical Islamist with whom it's acceptable to deal," in the words of regional specialist Alex de Waal.

The Arabic speakers include MUJAO (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the only group in the region that is actually a franchise of international al-Qaeda network. MUJAO is a regionally based offshoot of AQIM.

Following their joint victory against Malian forces, Ansar Dine and the MNLA had a falling out in May. Ag Ghali used agreements with MUJAO and AQIM as leverage to push aside the secular leadership of the Tuareg movement. In the process, MUJAO ousted the MNLA from its headquarters in the strategic Eastern town of Gao.

As it uses alliances with radical Islamists in its rivalry with the MNLA, Ansar Dine has also been "taking shelter beneath the MNLA, a group that the international community cannot avoid negotiating with, in an attempt to stave off a foreign intervention entirely," international analyst James Gundin wrote on his blog. "Ansar Dine is positioning itself as a necessary component of Mali's political solution" by posing as the Tuareg Islamists who will renounce their connection to al-Qaeda for enough money and a piece of the post-conflict political action.

WITH BREATHLESS hyperbole worthy of George W. Bush, Hollande justified the French offensive as an effort to prevent the creation of "a terrorist state on the doorstep of France and Europe." The state in Bamako may be in a dilapidated condition, but it's not about to fall to the rebels or lose control of the South.

An advance by rebels into the midsection of Mali--which is shaped like an hourglass on a 45 degree angle--does not portend a sweep all the way to Bamako. The South's temperate terrain is unfamiliar to the desert fighters of the North, and even several thousand Tamesheq and Arabic speakers would have no chance of controlling--or blending into--the Southern population, which is composed of a distinct set of ethnic groups.

Conversely, a Malian counteroffensive--even one bolstered by ECOWAS troops, plus Western money, special forces and deadly gadgets--stands little chance of taking control of unfamiliar terrain in the North, in an area as big as the whole of France.

The likelihood, then, is that neither side of the civil war will be capable of controlling the other's territory by force.

Despite Hollande's alarmist rhetoric about AQIM's rapid rise, U.S. military analysts don't seem to agree. A recent article on Magharebia, a website run by the Pentagon's African Command, declares that AQIM has gotten weaker, not stronger, since the seizure of Mali's North, "due to the disintegration of its internal structure."

Defections from AQIM in the region have been ongoing in the past year as young recruits, in the words of one Arab analyst, tire of "a life of austerity and in hiding in the depths of a barren desert." The potential defectors include some hundred fighters in Mali who would reintegrate into North African societies if offered amnesty from prosecution, according to a radical Islamist leader who took a similar deal in Algeria.

In view of the insurgency's limitations, the rebel advance on Konna looks like an attempt by the rebels to set up a buffer zone in anticipation of the major assault that the West and ECOWAS are planning.

Just before the rebel offensive--and 10 days after the UN authorization of war--Ansar Dine withdrew a previous pledge of a truce with Malian troops. Not surprisingly, the group's leader, ag Ghali, accused the Malian government of preparing for war as it talked peace.

As James Gundin wrote, the rebels, in pushing South, were "reinforcing their perimeter":

Rather than an organizing a sincere campaign into Mali's South, which would overtax their resources and commit a potentially fatal blunder, Ansar Dine and its allies are engaged in the strategic defense of their Northern territory. Using the muscle imported by [AQIM and MUJAO], Ansar Dine has gradually surrounded the Inner Niger [River] for months in preparation for [the UN-authorized] assault. Konna and the local center, Mopti, fit into a larger campaign to secure the entire delta, and thus obstruct the initial advance of Malian and foreign military units.

This plan includes the capture or destruction of Mopti's nearby airport at Sevare.

ALTHOUGH THE UN Security Council endorsed a "two-track" approach in December, combining negotiations with the threat of war, the French assault and the buildup of ECOWAS troops may signal the beginning of a protracted counterinsurgency campaign, one that is sure to sharpen ethnic divisions and further marginalize the Tuaregs.

To begin with, a full-blown war could easily double the extent of the refugee crisis. By early December, the conflict had displaced some 200,000 Malians inside the country, and another 260,000 had already fled to neighboring countries.

Military intervention would make things worse. Humanitarian aid planners at the UN predicted in a confidential report that outside military intervention could drive as many as 400,000 more Malians from their homes.

What's more, a small, untested ground force with long supply linesis unlikely to be effective against desert fighters who can disperse into small guerrilla bands. As a result, the war would have to reprise the tactics used in Afghanistan, including a reliance on Western drones, helicopters and warplanes.

The results would be the same as in Afghanistan--the slaughter of civilians and the reinforcement of popular will to drive out the Westerners and their local stooges.

In the name of fighting a war against radical Islamists, a Western-led war would bury the grievances of an oppressed minority, which inspired the original revolt. The war is also likely to intensify that oppression--even beyond the prospects of death and displacement--because the Bamako elite could create ethnic militias to fight the insurgents and terrorize Tuareg civilians.

Nevertheless, imperial rulers in France and the U.S. are willing to go forward with a savage counterinsurgency--because their concern is not for the well-being of ordinary Malians, whatever their ethnicity.

The West's concern isn't really about al-Qaeda either, but with the opportunity provided by the fear of al-Qaeda.

As in Afghanistan, a war in Mali, justified as a defense of "the homeland" against "terrorists," would consolidate Western powers as indispensable players in a region with massive mineral and energy resources. It's a game of positioning against rising powers such as China and India, which are also trying to establish influence in Africa.

This is the meaning of Barack Obama's commitment to help states in Africa and elsewhere "to establish control over ungoverned territories." In so doing, U.S. money and military presence would become integrated as crucial pillars holding up weak states, thus cementing the states' long-term political dependence and subordination.

States like Mali, which gained independence in 1960, were weak from the start. The weakness was due in part to the colonial powers' tendency to draw boundaries where they pleased. Ethnic groups such as the Tuaregs were split between different colonies, while different populations, leading vastly different lives, were roped together inside a single colony's boundaries.

By choosing one group as its tool for "indirect rule," the colonial powers also determined which groups would dominate the post-colonial states and which groups would be marginalized. The post-colonial period also corresponds to the Cold War, when the superpowers backed up the fragile dominance of African elites over their "peripheral" populations.

The end of the Cold War marked an end to the relative stability of sub-Saharan Africa. States lost the backing of the superpowers, African economies collapsed under a mountain of debt, and the neoliberal prescriptions of Western financiers led to the further weakening of the state. Thus began the social disintegration of sub-Saharan Africa and what Gerard Prunier dubbed "Africa's world war."

In light of Africa's disastrous recent past, the problem with the Obama scheme, even from the imperialists' point of view, is that bolstering a weak state is easier than saving a collapsing one.

If the state is to be rebuilt, Malians would have to have a role in its creation. A fresh state apparatus would be--as imperial planners hope--dependent on and beholden to the West, but it couldn't be simply a cipher of Western interests. It would need to win some level of consent among Malians in order to hold together the huge multiethnic territory, in part because it would still be too weak to rely on force alone.

Such consent, however, seems impossible to win in the midst of a civil war, precisely when the state is trying to reunite the territory by force. Before the month's lurch into war, France, the United States and UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon were all demanding elections for president by April--a way of building legitimacy before the war, which they thought would not begin until September.

But even this scheme could provide no more than a shadow of democracy, since the Northern population wouldn't be voting. The election itself would thus ratify Mali's partition.

In any case, the Western powers have chosen war as the way to put Mali together again, and they've begun deploying all the king's horses. Malians of the North and the South could all be in for a long, terrible ordeal. The imperialists don't exactly care who wins--as long as they back the winner.

Sarah Knopp contributed to this article.

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