Mali: A disaster 50 years in the making

At his blog, Dekhnstan, Nasser Weddady puts the conflict in Mali in historical context. The idea that the current fighting is fallout from the NATO intervention in Libya has been popularized by Glenn Greenwald and others, yet that analysis conveniently ignores the fact that the jihadi presence in northern Mali, long pre-dated Gaddafi’s fall.

By the time Qadhafi’s regime in Libya fell, northern Mali had been home to Jihadi elements that left Algeria a decade earlier after being thoroughly defeated in the civil war. By 2002, remnants of Algeria’s GIA [from which GSPC (Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat) splintered and later changed its name to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)] found sanctuary behind the borders away from their nemesis the Algeria’s army. They were also attracted by the allure of making easy money by partnering in the flourishing Saharan smuggling commerce. Drugs, tobacco, weapons and stolen cars provided a lucrative alternative to war.

Jihadis made new and strange bedfellows in that period. Mali, Algeria, Mauritania and Senegal army officers started to skim off the new source of wealth. Getting a cut from the smuggling revenues in exchange for looking the other way was the the policy for almost a decade. Jihadis venture capitalism extended to an even more lucrative business: kidnapping western hostages all over the Sahara yielded over 90 Million Euros over a decade. Unlike the conspiracy theorists and snake oil merchants claim, things are a tad more complex in reality, and at times, even more unflattering to our world’s big powers.

Time and again, European nations chose to negotiate, and pay ransom money. Germany, Italy, Spain, France cut deals with hostage takers not thinking much of it. After all, Europe’s politicians thought the savages were deep in the Sahara and did not pose much of a threat beyond their forsaken deserts. Or at best, let the Malians deal with them. Complacency was Europe’s strategy.

Slowly but surely, the region became a Jihadi Eldorado. The modus operandi was very simple: why get killed trying to create an Islamist emirate in “apostate-ruled” neighboring countries when you can build your own sanctuary AND have the West pay for it? Even better, now that you are flush with cash, blend into the local communities. Those whom you cannot buy, you marry. To Azawadis the offering was: Bamako [the Mali government] cannot build you a water well? Here’s a cash wad of Euros, go build it yourself.

Once the nexus was set up, there was no going back. The joint Franco-Mauritanian operations of 2010 and 2011 were just grandiose hostage release operations. By then, the United States had been pursuing its own classical approach of throwing money at problems it cannot deal with. Development programs were set up in Mali to reward the democratic progress. Military assistance in the form of training for the Malian military was ongoing. The US even tried very hard to get the neighboring countries to start a meaningful cooperation.

Algerians were miffed by the suggestion that they should be told what to do about their own security. Morocco was scheming and trying to make itself relevant in a problem it has nothing to do with just to score points over Algeria. Burkina Faso and Mauritania were fighting their own covert wars by proxy. Mali’s government was doing nothing meaningful about the Jihadis in Azawad. Instead it was locked in a war of words with Mauritania’s General Aziz who seemed intent on humiliating then President Amadou Toumni Touré for daring to oppose his coup of 2008.

When it was not busy blogging from Germany on its Maghrebia news website, America’s Africa Command (Africom) in charge of the Sahel region, was in earnest trying to make sense of this maze of interests, pushing for a regional command to deal with the lawless mess that Azawad was slowly progressing.. All things considered, these efforts’ ultimate outcome is not encouraging because yet again their premise is profoundly flawed: no country around Mali, or in West Africa has the muscle, nor the will to engage in an open war which in essence is a nation-building exercise.

All of these schemes and plans became moot by the time Ansar Dine’s columns pushed south from its Azawadi sanctuary. The skeleton of an untested idea became a doctrinal principle in France’s Operation Serval: we will stop the Jihadis, but the Africans will have to go north and defeat the enemy– said France. This plan of an ECOWAS force that will spearhead the fight with the backing of the African Union, and the necessary paperwork from the UN Security Council is a recipe for disaster. Rotten and corrupt militaries, commanded by equally corrupt leaders cannot be a credible partner once the shooting starts. This line of thinking owes a lot more to post-colonial discourses than it does to the practical matter of drying out the northern Malian jihadi swamp.

The other principle complicating matters is Africa’s biggest taboo. Today, no one is willing to recognize that Mali, like most of Africa, is an artificial construct. Just like the Middle East’s levant, countries were created without much thought of whether they made sense for those destined to live in them. Ethnic groups with competing cultures were condemned to live in them. Maybe they will end up making sense in the future, but just as in Mali, that will cost a lot of blood and treasure. [Continue reading...]

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