In Mali, it's not Françafrique

Stephen W. Smith · In Search of Monsters: What are they doing in Mali? · LRB 7 February 2013

Stephen Smith writes in a piece critical of the French intervention:

Since the end of the Cold War, the prerequisites for a ‘Franco-African state’ – a bipolar world order capable of overriding the commercial interests of other Western powers; the absence of democracy and hence of elite competition in Africa; manageable demographics for a mid-level power like France etc – have diminished or disappeared entirely. Yet observers still tend to explain what Paris does, or fails to do, in sub-Saharan Africa as an effect of la Françafrique. Old habits die hard even in unfavourable circumstances, and the French have needed time to come to terms with many inconvenient truths. This may account for the fact that la Françafrique is such a lively anachronism in their public debates. But if France’s decision to intervene in Mali had anything to do with la Françafrique, at least some of the following conditions would be met: Hollande would enjoy a cosy relationship with the ‘big man’ in power in Bamako, who would have secretly funded the French Socialist Party; thousands of French expats would be making a good living in the former colony; Mali’s mineral or agricultural resources would be firmly in the hands of French companies; and the country’s diplomacy would follow the French lead as unerringly as a sunflower follows the daystar.

So what is it, then? Not sure Smith finds a satisfactory answer to that question — and perhaps he just can't quite admit that an intervention that had received UN backing, was welcomed by most African states, and was at the request of the country's government need not have some great hidden motive.

In Translation: On Mali's Islamist groups

There is a strange divide about the situation in Mali in the Arab world. Beyond the regular newspaper coverage and almost reflexive suspicion of “neo-colonialist” motives behind the French-led operations, my impression is that the average Egyptian or for that matter average Arab is not greatly concerned with this situation, especially at a time when many countries are embroiled in tense domestic developments. Yet, for Islamists, the Mali issue has been important: not only for the Salafis who protested outside the French embassy in Cairo and elsewhere, but also in the wider Islamist movement, including the Muslim Brothers. Just see Mohammed Morsi’s surprisingly vocal and repeated opposition to the intervention (I’ll have more on that soon) and the Brotherhood’s quite strong stance on the issue. They care about it way more than the average person or that the geostrategic importance of what happens in Mali (and is supported by the UN, Mali’s neighbors and its government) would suggest. It’s an interesting phenomenon now that they are in power, because it’s always clear whether their positions stem from opposition to interventionism or sympathies for some of the Islamist movements of northern Mali.

I came across the analysis below through a link on Twitter. I’m not sure where it originates, but the author is a well-known writer on Islamists (with Islamist sympathies himself) who edits the al-Islamiyoun website, which covers analyses of Islamist movements. I won’t comment on the content, as I am no specialist on the issue.

As always, our In Translation series is made possible by the wonderful Industry Arabic. If you need something -- anything! -- translated, please give them a go. They're really, really good.

Islamist Groups in Mali…An Overview

By Ali Abdel Aal, editor of al-Islamiyoun, Arabic original in Word format here.

In the past nine months, groups of “jihadist” Islamist groups have taken control of Mali’s northern areas, having captured them in the aftermath of an armed rebellion by the Tuareg people, a rebellion led by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which seeks to separate the Northern region of Azawad from the rest of the country and to create an independent state.

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Mauritania’s Society on the Mali War: Niet!! « Dekhnstan

Mauritania’s Society on the Mali War: Niet!! « Dekhnstan

Nasser Weddady gives the Mauritanian perspective:

Mauritanian public opinion remains dead set against their country’s involvement in Mali. Across the political and social spectrum, not a single meaningful voice called for Mauritania to intervene militarily. Worse, Mauritanian Salafis implicitly endorsed the Jihadis in Mali with an incendiary fatwa. Thus, it is no longer possible to present the Malian war as a foreign matter, it has become an internal political battle. Despite all of this, The “president” General Aziz unilaterally put the country on the path to war.

In the best tradition of a tribal chief, General Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz made a potentially fateful decision in a meeting with his French counterpart.  He told the Gauls’ chief François Hollande, that should the chief of the Malians ask for his help, he shall oblige. So is the mindset governing the country’s destiny. This should be a cause for serious concern for anyone contemplating a Mauritanian entry in the conflict.

General Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz’s meeting on Tuesday with François Hollande in Abu Dhabi shook the country’s political class out of its wait-and-see posture. Till that point, only the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood had declared -unsurprisingly- its vehement opposition to what it calls “the French invasion” of Mali.

As customary with General Aziz, he did not bother issuing any communiqués about the substance of his meeting with the French president. He even excluded his press adviser from the meeting altogether. Mauritanian state media reported the meeting as a routine discussion.  It was rather François Hollande who dropped the bombshell during this own press conference: “Mauritania is ready to take its responsibilities vis-à-vis the terrorist threat should the Malian state issue such a request.”

I wonder how this all works with the Maghrebi regional dynamics, with Mauritanian being allied with Morocco, vis-a-vis Algeria.

Mali and the Maghreb

Geoff Porter emails:

Over the last several days there has been lots of analysis about AQIM and about how the situation in Mali and France’s bombing campaign came to be, so there’s not much point in going over that ground again. Instead, it might be helpful to look forward to what the French campaign is about (and what it’s not), as well as to look north to the implications for North Africa.

Until 2012, AQIM in the Sahara had been a relatively successful criminal organization – kidnap for ransom, smuggling, narco-trafficking, etc – but it was not a very good or very committed salafi jihadi terrorist organization. From 2008 until 2012 it prioritized making money over ideology. It was intertwined with local populations to the extent that they provided cover and support for illicit activities, but it did not try to impose its salafi jihadi ideology on the population with which it interacted. In general, its roughly 500 fighters existed on the margins of an already marginal region. It was troublesome, but it did not pose a strategic threat to local governments or Europe or the US. That obviously changed in 2012 with the influx of Libyan weapons, the Tuareg rebellion, the collapse of the government in Bamako and its control of the northern half of Mali. AQIM went from a criminally inclined, underperforming Al Qaeda affiliate with dubious loyalty to controlling a large territory and running a “terrorist safe haven” in a country that was an ally to both France and the US. And it placed AQIM and the other Islamist organizations with which it has tensely shared power – Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and Ansar al-Din – squarely in France’s sights.

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More links (and audio) on Mali

Some recent articles on Mali and background pieces, as well as a clip from yesterday's World at One on BBC Radio 4, featuring UN Special Envoy to the Sahel Romano Prodi and Sahel specialist Jeremy Keenan.

 

 

The intervention was necessary. The drama of the Islamist offensive should not be underestimated—a successful assault on Sevaré would have meant the loss of the only airstrip in Mali capable of handling heavy cargo planes, apart from that in Bamako. The fall of Sevaré would in turn have made any future military operation a nightmare for West African or other friendly forces, and it would have chased tens of thousands of civilians from their homes. These would only have been the most immediate effects. After Sevaré, nothing would have stopped an Islamist advance on Segu and Bamako, although it is unclear to me that the Islamists would have any strategic interest in investing Mali’s sprawling and densely populated capital.

On Mali

From today's Le Monde

The situation in Mali, where France has launched a military strike because of the risk that the capital, Bamako, or its surroundings could fall into rebel hands (rebels here including jihadist groups) is incredibly complex. Beyond the question of the secessionist north and the junta that staged a coup against a democratically elected government last year, what is happening in Mali has far-reaching consequences for all the countries in the Sahel region. From those that may be as fragile as Mali is (Mauritania) to countries who appear to be playing on all sides of the conflict to have their cake and eat it too (Algeria). This consequence, in part, to the Libyan civil war is going to be with us for years.

For once, I am tentatively sympathetic to the idea of international intervention, since at least it is UN-sanctioned and demanded by the local government (although of course its legitimacy is scant.) Letting Bamako handle the situation itself hardly seems to be a solution, and the regional solution I would prefer does not seem to be forthcoming since every neighbor is either too weak or too reluctant to do anything. But I am withholding judgement here, since I know next to nothing about the situation. It just seems worth highlighting, though, as this war is not likely to get much attention in English, anyway.

There is also this remarkable piece in the NYT, which makes you want to hit your head against a wall:

For years, the United States tried to stem the spread of Islamic militancy in the region by conducting its most ambitious counterterrorism program ever across these vast, turbulent stretches of the Sahara.

But as insurgents swept through the desert last year, commanders of this nation’s elite army units, the fruit of years of careful American training, defected when they were needed most — taking troops, guns, trucks and their newfound skills to the enemy in the heat of battle, according to senior Malian military officials.

“It was a disaster,” said one of several senior Malian officers to confirm the defections.

Then an American-trained officer overthrew Mali’s elected government, setting the stage for more than half of the country to fall into the hands of Islamic extremists. American spy planes and surveillance drones have tried to make sense of the mess, but American officials and their allies are still scrambling even to get a detailed picture of who they are up against.

Now, in the face of longstanding American warnings that a Western assault on the Islamist stronghold could rally jihadists around the world and prompt terrorist attacks as far away as Europe, the French have entered the war themselves.

For the last decade, I've followed from afar these US counter-terrorism efforts, mostly thinking that the US was being swindled by the Algerians and others for whom "training" translates into securing US backing for their own agendas. But this seems really half-arsed. What guarantee is there that the French will fare better? Well, there isn't.

Some other pieces offering background on what's been happening in Mali, where the incompetence seems to be in abundance of supply on all sides:

Tuareg-Islamist alliance collapses in northern Mali

DSC_1514 Kidal, Mali.

Above, houses from the Kidal region of northern Mali, where as you might tell good governance has not been part of the picture for a while. Paul Mutter sends in the latest on what's happening in the Sahel as international involvement increases.

Le Monde estimates that over 200,000 Malians have fled to neighboring countries in the wake of the ongoing "Tuareg rebellion," while at least 150,000 more have become international displaced persons. It is by now though, a misnomer to call this conflict a "Tuareg rebellion," as the MNLA, the Tuareg organization originally fighting to establish an autonomous homeland in northern Mali, has been driven from the cities it captured from the government. The government was driven from the north months before, and so the initiative is now in hands of the militias proclaiming Islamist goals.

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Links January 7th and January 8th

Automatically posted links for January 7th through January 8th:

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