Mali: into an imperial quagmire

Author: 
Colin Foster

The French military intervention in Mali promises no better than the US military intervention in Afghanistan since 2001. Or even worse.


This is a longer version of the article than in the printed paper.

The French troops may be able to push the Islamist militias out of the cities of Mali's north-west. But, when the Islamists have retreated to the vast remotenesses of the desert, then what?

Both French president Francois Hollande and British prime minister David Cameron have been trying to prepare public opinion for the operation lasting a long time, maybe decades. The French military are likely to be propping up corrupt and vicious regimes, antagonising the local people by imperial arrogance, and pushing recruits into the hands of the Islamists.

Gilles Kepel, an expert on political Islam, says: "The real test on the ground will be [France's] capacity to encourage democratic political transition and steer clear from the drift which followed NATO's operations in Libya, the USA's in Iraq, and the international coalition's in Afghanistan".

The prospects look worse than in those other cases. NATO never had sizeable ground troops in Libya. The USA never reckoned to keep troops long in Iraq or Afghanistan, and at the start had apparently solid local allies. France has been interfering in Mali for 133 years now, with bad results, and has been pulled in by a collapse of the local regime.

The first result of the new French intervention was an Islamist retaliation raid (16 January) on a big gas facility in Algeria: about 40 workers taken hostage were killed when the Algerian army counter-attacked.

Mali is a big country, five times the land area of the UK, but very poor. Its GDP per head, $1100, is only just ahead of Afghanistan's ($1000). It has 31% literacy and an average life expectancy of 53.

It was, or rather the land area now called Mali was, grabbed by France in 1880, during the European powers' scramble to carve up Africa. It was kept under colonial rule until 1960. Walter Rodney's book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa cites Mali as a prime example of Africans being forced by gun and whip to grow cash crops.

Its boundaries were drawn arbitrarily by colonial competition and administrative convenience. The desert and semi-desert north-west, two-thirds of the country's area but home to only 1.3 million of its 15.5 million people, is linguistically and culturally distinct from the south and east.

In late 2011 the fall of Qaddafi's tyranny in Libya sent many Malians recruited by him as mercenaries returning home, with weapons. Armed revolt increased by the Tuaregs, a mostly nomadic desert people, spread across many countries, and a large part though not a majority of the population of Mali's north-west.

On 22 March 2012 a military coup in Mali's capital, Bamako (in the south), overthrew the notoriously corrupt regime of Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT). The officers leading the coup cited ATT's inefficiency in fighting the Tuareg revolt. The result, however, was that the Tuareg militia MNLA took the biggest city in the north-west, Timbuktu, population 50,000, on 1 April.

On 2 April an alliance of Islamist militias, well-funded from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and with bases also in Algeria and Mauretania, ousted the secular MNLA and seized Timbuktu in their turn. By late June the Islamists dominated the north-west.

On 11 January France sent planes and then troops because the Islamists were advancing. According to French expert André Bourgeot: "To talk of Mali as such falling seems premature to me, because that would mean the conquest of Bamako".

By all accounts the Islamist militias have no popular support even in the north-west, count only a few thousand fighters, and are a not-necessarily-solid alliance. Even though the Malian army is said to have a real strength of only 5000, it has hard to see how the Islamists could sweep the south.

"But", says Bourgeot, "there was a risk of implosion in Mali if Sévaré [a crossroads town on the border between the south and north-west] fell into the hands of the jihadists".

"Anyway", he adds, "there is a risk of getting bogged down".

The Tuareg MNLA has offered to ally with the French in fighting the Islamists, in the hope of getting a deal which would give some power to the MNLA and autonomy for the north-west. In Bamako, says Bourgeot, chosing his words carefully, "little tricolour flags are being sold on some streets, and some people are buying them".

But the Financial Times describes what has happened already in Mali - not a pessimistic projection of prospects - as a "boomerang from Washington's war on terror". Since 2001 the USA has poured money into trying to strengthen African armies to fight Islamists.

"To the dismay of the US, junior Malian officers trained [at US expense] took part in a coup... Others defected to the Tuareg revolt... Other failures [included] a naive approach to the Malian government of ATT, which was something of a pin-up for democracy among western donors" - despite its extreme corruption and its great unpopularity in the north-west and even in the south.

France's involvement in Mali is on a different level. Mostly when colonial peoples in Africa and Asia declared independence from former European rulers, between the 1940s and the 1970s, they really did become politically independent, though not, of course, economically independent from the often crippling impacts of a world market dominated by the richer states and the big multinationals.

French west Africa was different. The French imperialists' slogan was "partir pour mieux rester" - quitting, the better to stay - and they carried it out. As Stephen W Smith reported in a survey article on "Francafrique" (London Review of Books, 11 February 2010), if a journalist went to interview an African minister, "you shook hands with the holder of office and sat down to question his French adviser".

In the first ten years after independence, the number of French expatriates there more than doubled. France intervened militarily, to rescue or depose governments, 40 times between 1960 and the end of the Cold War.

Since the mid-1990s, Francafrique has eroded. Both Hollande and his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy have publicly vowed to end the web of corrupt ties between French officials and African dictators. China is now Mali's foremost export destination; France has run down its permanent military bases in west Africa, since February 2010 retaining only one in Gabon.

Yet large residues of Francafrique remain, and the French military intervention in Mali may well bring a reversion to outright neo-colonialism. According to Paul Martial (on www.npa2009.org), the giant French firm Bouygues runs electricity distribution in Mali and is involved in gold-mining too. Other French firms are big in the cotton industry and in mobile telephony. Areva has an important uranium mine just over the border in Niger, another former French colony.

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French troops also in Niger

According to the Paris daily Le Monde of 24 January, French special forces have also been sent to Niger, to guard the Arlit and Imamouren uranium-mining operations of the French multinational Areva.