I find it difficult to agree with Martin Thomas’ statement in Solidarity 272 (30 January): “Better troops out now than an African Afghanistan.”
The differences between the French action in Mali and the US-led action in Afghanistan are as important as any similarities.
For a start, the French are in Mali at the invitation of the Malian government (admitted not a democratically elected government), and all credible reports show overwhelming popular support from Malians for the French action.
Additionally, this is not just a French action. It is supported by the African Union and west African countries are sending troops to fight alongside the French.
The form of Islam espoused by the groups (including al-Qaida fighters dislodged from Libya, Somalia and other former sanctuaries) who have attacked Mali has nothing in common with Islam as actually practised in Mali.
In fact, these Islamists can properly be considered fascists and have destroyed the shrines to Sufi saints and precious collections of ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu.
The Islamists have even outlawed music: a thoroughly imperialist and alien measure, as Malian music, by such performers as Salif Keita, Mory Kante and Ali Farka Toure, is famed and loved across Africa.
The cultural vandalism of these fascists is, of course, merely an adjunct to their brutality towards the majority Malian population. Proper concern over likely reprisals against the Tuareg population should not blind us to the fact that the majority Malian population have greeted French forces as liberators.
The French invasion is not our way of doing things, and we should of course note the possible dangers of “mission creep” and a long-term presence that becomes increasingly oppressive and unpopular.
But to simply denounce the French action and call for “troops out now” is the worst kind of irresponsible fake-”anti-imperialist” posturing of the sort that the AWL and Solidarity usually avoids.
Jim Denham, Birmingham
Jim is right that control of the towns of north-west Mali by French troops is a lesser evil than control by Al Qaeda and its allies.
By all accounts most people in Mali (and not just the government installed by a military coup last year) see it that way.
For the purpose of teasing out and following through debates on the left, we should note that the groups which denounced AWL as insufficiently “anti-imperialist” for refusing positively to support the Taliban in Afghanistan, Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003, Argentina in the South Atlantic in 1982, etc., when they were “fighting imperialism”, have refused to follow their own logic: none of them positively backs the jihadist militias.
However, I think we should look at things in the logic of their development, rather than as snapshots.
French withdrawal does not mean Al Qaeda victory. The jihadist militias — an alliance of three Tuareg and Arab groups, totalling a few thousand fighters, with little popular support — could not have conquered the densely-populated black-African south of Mali, where the population is at odds with them not only politically but also linguistically and culturally.
Continued French presence in Mali is, on the other hand, unlikely to be a short-term affair defined by its official “good reason” — pushing back the jihadist militias. It is likely to have a neo-colonial logic, much more so than the US presence in Iraq or Afghanistan, let alone NATO operations in Libya.
The jihadists have only retreated into the desert areas (maybe three times the area of southern Afghanistan in which the Taliban is strong) or across the desert borders (over twice the length of the Afghanistan/ Pakistan border).
With secular Tuareg demands compounding the complexity, and the Malian government probably having less political credit and clout than the pro-US government in Afghanistan after the Taliban’s defeat in 2001, a “mopping-up” operation by French troops is likely to suck France into a neo-colonial role.
There is neo-colonial push as well as pull. France is intervening in a region where it has been the colonial or neo-colonial power for over 130 years, and has large economic interests.
France already had troops in many neighbouring countries — Senegal, Chad, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mauretania.
Since landing troops in Mali, France has also sent soldiers to guard the uranium mines owned by the French multinational Areva in Niger.
Better French withdrawal than a neo-colonial quagmire.
Martin Thomas, London
Slogans for Syria
As Tom Unterrainer (letter, Solidarity 272) notes, Solidarity headlines on Syria used to feature text like “Down with Assad!”
No-one reading our recent comment on Syria (Solidarity 269: bit.ly/119BC1p) can think we’ve become less hostile to Assad. So what’s changed?
In 2011 and early 2012, “down with Assad!” was shorthand for “support the opposition which is fighting to oust Assad”. Our articles expressed that support, despite also criticising and warning.
Now, as Tom himself notes, the secular and democratic revolt in Syria has been sidelined by the dominance in the opposition of ultra-Islamist, sectarian, and often gangster-like militias. Thus a shift in our attitude.
We could still use the words “Down with Assad!” while explaining that we now give them a different meaning: a call on the other Ba’thist rulers to get rid of the dictator.
Such a palace coup would be welcome. Realistically no “bourgeois peace”, no deal between the rulers and the opposition which allows some breathing space for secular and democratic forces to revive, will happen without it.
But to make our slogan the demand for a palace coup is another matter. Demands on the second-rank despots to push aside the top despot are not a means to mobilise mass activity. If they have any political effect, it can only be to encourage people to look for a way forward not in self-organisation but in speculation on rifts among the rulers.
A third option would be to have a slogan like “Down with Assad! Down with the sectarian militias!”, analogous to the call “Down with the Shah! Down with Khomeiny!” which some socialists (not us, alas!) advanced for Iran in 1978.
But in Iran there was a powerful workers’ movement and a sizeable left. “Down with the Shah! Down with Khomeiny!” could have been made reality by a political reorientation of the left and the workers’ movement such as, in principle, could have happened quite quickly.
We are as yet far from that in Syria. The cry “Down with Assad! Down with the sectarian militias!” would be sloganising in mid-air.
And, to my mind, one of the lessons we must learn from movements like Lenin’s Bolsheviks is that — contrary to the habits of most would-be Trotskyists for many decades now — it is not always necessary or desirable to have a snappy slogan.
Colin Foster, London
Challenging traditional models
As a vocal supporter of same sex marriage, I was very interested by Jack Saffrey-Rowe’s confrontation with Phillip Hammond MP regarding same sex marriage (Solidarity 272).
However, I was deeply disappointed that he wrote that he felt that people in an incestuous relationship is “invalid”.
There is no compelling reason to treat incestuous couples as some sort of verboten aberration, when incest is as old and as enduring in our culture as homosexuality. More recently, a phenomenon known as Genetic Sexual Attraction has been studied, where close relatives who first meet as adults often experience overpowering sexual feelings for each other — isn’t the “I can’t help the way I am” argument the first one trotted out to justify LGBT liberation?
Critics such as Phillip Hammond are entirely right in saying that if society accepts gay relationships, then there’s no reason why siblings can’t get married — our responsibility should be to defend the right of any consenting adult to have whatever relationships they want with any other consenting adult, not to be outraged at the comparison in the horror of our own unthinking taboos.
If we are divorcing marriage, relationships and sex from the traditional model for making babies, as we have and as we continue to do, then the idea of prohibiting sibling relationships or treating them as out of the ordinary also stops making any sense. And if you are currently saying to yourself, “Well, ok, but what about the possibility of deformed children?!”, ask yourself this: do you have a problem with same sex sibling relationships?
It is a matter of months before Jack and I will be able to marry the people we love — I hope it will not be too much longer before everyone will be able to do the same.