Saturday 29 June 2013

Mali: The Liberation of a New Afghanistan

Last summer, long before anyone even thought that the French would intervene in Mali, I began writing a post that I never published on the situation there in which I called for military intervention. That is the reason why some of foregoing analysis appears to stop before the French intervention – although, Glenn Greenwald’s article on Mali (Monday 14th January 2013) made me cringe so much that I’ve been forced to edit the post where relevant. In the post (now this post), I wanted to address three issues: the connection between the Mali situation and Libya, West African counter-terrorism policy pre-2011 and whether the situation posed a threat to the West. This last issue has, I hope, become obsolete to the extent that I do not need to address it (but I will touch on it).

The situation

Briefly stated, the situation is as follows: in the northern part of the country, there are (mostly secular) Tuareg separatists who wish to have their own state of Azawad. They managed to fight the government out of the Northern areas and declare a state. After public outcry in Mali at the state’s incompetence to deal with the trouble in the North, the Army conducted a coup – leaving Mali without a proper democratic government. The response of African nations and the West was to put sanctions on the junta forcing it to cede power back to a civilian government.

The gains that the Tuareg separatists had made had been highjacked by an Islamist group called Ansar Dine. The Tuaregs and the Islamists had been fighting together against the central government – but their goals and ideologies are far apart. The Islamists do not want an independent state but a medieval interpretation of Sharia to be implemented across Mali – which is exactly what they did: publically executing civilians, destroying non-Islamic ancient monuments, chasing women without  male companions, and more of what you’d expect.  Given this record, it should be unsurprising that the group is linked, working with and giving support to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – an Al Qaeda Central affiliate.

According to Foreign Affairs, Timbuktu was taken by Ansar Dine with the “assistance of AQIM.” As detailed below, this relationship has extended to giving sanctuary to AQIM in the areas of Mali where Ansar Dine have taken control. Needless to say, the imposition of such laws and hosting of terrorists has led to a major refugee crisis in the region. [Despite all of this, the international community was paralysed. Then, in January, the French stepped up – and carried out the liberation of the country. There are now elections planned for July 28 – but, as this article in The Guardian persuasively argues, there are good reasons for that date to be pushed back. The Tuaregs have not only dropped their goal of separation, but have agreed to Malian troops to be stationed in the North.]

Greenwald on Mali

Greenwald in his article, written in the wake of the French liberation, makes five different claims – and I don’t have space to handle them all. His first claim is the idea that the Libya intervention ‘caused’ the political crisis, coup and terrorism in Mali – because it allowed an influx of arms and men. This is not a claim limited to Greenwald or a fringe (unlike the next argument). But it is still wrong. I can add nothing but to quote the brilliant post by Jay Ulfelder:

The accounts I’ve read from people who closely study the country generally attribute the crisis in Mali to two things: 1) the resumption of armed rebellion in northern Mali in January 2012; and 2) the mutiny and coup that ensued in March.  To make strong claims about the importance of Libya to Mali, though, we have to believe that one or both of these things—the rebellion and the coup—would not have happened if Libya hadn’t imploded.

The first of these was not caused by the Libyan intervention because “the resumption of rebellion had been planned for some time, suggesting that Libya’s collapse was not a necessary condition for its occurrence.” What about the coup?

The connection between Libya and the March 2012 coup is even more tenuous. Statistical models I developed to forecast coups d’etat identified Mali as one of the countries at greatest risk in 2012 before the coup happened, and that assessment was not particularly sensitive to events in Libya.

Greenwald’s second claim:

The overthrow of the Malian government was enabled by US-trained-and-armed soldiers who defected... In other words, the west is once again at war with the very forces that it trained, funded and armed. Nobody is better at creating its own enemies

There are three things wrong with this. First, is the implication that the US was involved in the coup that dislodged the democratically elected Malian government. It was not; as should be apparent from above, the U.S and its allies imposed sanctions. In fact, it is illegal under U.S law to provide assistance to a military government that has removed a democratically elected regime – which is why US assistance in the French intervention went directly to France, not Mali. Second, we worked with the ‘US-trained-and-armed soldiers’ – they are not our enemies. There is an uneasy relationship between the civilian government and the military junta – and the West, like the Malian authorities wishes to see them abdicate but they are not AQIM, they are not the MLNA – and hence are not our “enemies.” Thirdly, the US was the most reluctant Western power when it came to military intervention (see here, here and here).

The element where most of the original post has been deleted is whether the situation in Mali, and particularly AQIM, posed a threat to the West.  It has been deleted because I don’t think people will dispute it – for two reasons. First, the history of the region became clearer. People could no longer ignore what I’ve outlined below: the West has been attacked in Africa more than once; the people of Africa have been attacked and Al Qaeda has been attempting to do what it has always done. Second, though I doubt people need to be reminded, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s leader chose to take innocent Western civilians hostage working in Amenas - some were executed.  Of course, there is a common response - cue Greenwald’s third claim

Western bombing of Muslims in yet another country will obviously provoke even more anti-western sentiment, the fuel of terrorism.. As Bradford University professor Paul Rogers told Jones, the bombing of Mali "will be portrayed as 'one more example of an assault on Islam'".

I refuse to dedicate another post as to the ‘foreign policy causes terrorism’ argument – but the circumstances of this act of terrorism mean that the argument is even more ignorant. (i) The AQIM militants caught by the Algerian authorities were part of the Benghazi September attack (pre-Malian intervention); (ii) the hostage taking was carried out by Belmokhtar and was linked to him attempting to gain control over AQIM – it had little to do with Mali (and here); (iii) AQIM’s demands were not limited to removal of Western forces from Mali, like all Islamist militants they want Taliban-style states and more – including the release of a convicted terrorist Omar Abdul Rahman.

(iv) Most importantly and generally, against this argument, are the Malian people. There has been one news outlet which has been reporting on Mali when it was largely muted in the rest of the media: Channel 4 – and that is thanks to the work of Lindsey Hilsum. In one of her reports post-liberation, she notes that Malians were persuaded that “the French are liberators” and there was “massive enthusiasm for the French and the military operation.” The BBC’s Andrew Harding aptly summed up the situation noting that the “French are being seen as saviours.” These are not Western propagandists misrepresenting the views of the oppressed:

Strong majorities in all surveyed regions support the use of force by foreign militaries to target Islamist rebels. Respondents in Mopti, the region surveyed that is closest to the conflict, are the strongest supporters – 89% support foreign intervention while 8% oppose it (ORB International, polling from Dec 2012).

The two issues are distinct of course; my point has always been that foreign policy does not make people immoral. But my point here is that it is not even true that people have an aversion to the foreign policy. The only thing that has been portrayed an assault on Islam by Malian clerics is Al Qaeda. Indeed, an online poll of Guardian readers showed the same resolve against the fringe arguments of Milne and Greenwald: 79% of those polled supported the French intervention.

U.S counter-terrorism policy pre-2011

AQIM did not show up in Mali in the last year or even few years. After the U.S and her allies decimated Al Qaeda Central’s haven in Afghanistan in 2001, many of the militants moved to Pakistan – but many also moved to Yemen and Mali. In fact, in 2004, American Generals were speaking of a ‘new Afghanistan’ in Mali. As the risk has been here for so long, its worth asking why Al Qaeda haven’t been dealt a blow.

The New York Times reported that in 2004 the U.S Military tried to quell this upsurge by “dispatching Special Operations forces to countries like Mali and Mauritania in West Africa to train soldiers and outfit them with pickup trucks, radios and global-positioning equipment.” The State Department has launched a $500million programme in Africa – which includes not only the aforementioned military dimension but also non-military element which invests in education, local business and radio stations. Even then, the Malian military remained weak – which is why they lost so quickly to the Tuareg militants.  Moreover, the kidnappings conducted by Al Qaeda did give it significant resources too – “Germany paid [AQIM’s leader] a ransom of nearly $6 million -- equivalent to a quarter of Niger's defense budget.” And thats probably the significant reason why the efforts have not succeeded as they did in Afghanistan: the countries themselves do not have counter-terrorism capability.

Gregory Mann attempts to argue in Foreign Policy the opposite; it wasn’t a lack of resources but the War on Terror itself that made things worse. He writes:

Mali has already paid a high price for the failure of French anti-terrorist policies in the Sahara. Mali was long spared the trauma of having its Western visitors kidnapped... After a bloody 2010 Franco-Mauritanian raid aimed at rescuing a French hostage from AQIM [-] that all changed.

This is wrong. There were kidnappings of Westerners before 2010; so much so the Foreign Office issued a warning not to travel to Mali in 2009. Al Qaeda operated in Mali long before 2010 – it arrived in 2001, acted on Malian territory and against Malian authorities. According to the New York Times, in 2009, AQIM murdered a “senior Malian army officer in his home” and then a couple of weeks later, “attacked a Malian Army patrol in that country’s northern desert, killing nearly a dozen soldiers and capturing several others.” By the way, I would suggest that the presence of AQIM whether actually attacking anyone or not is something that the Mali government should not tolerate. Mann continues by saying

At the same time, both France and the United States were pushing the central government to reassert control in the desert... [A decade of] Special Forces training, cooperation between Sahalien armies and the United States, and counterterrorism programs of all sorts run by both the State Department and the Pentagon has, at best, failed to prevent a new disaster in the desert and, at worst, sowed its seeds.

It is true that the French and Americans were pushing for the Malians (and other African nations) to make efforts against AQIM by clearing huge swathes of the desert that AQIM was utilising. The reason why is obvious and shouldn’t need to be defended: their citizens were paying the price of passivity of the African nations through the kidnappings, bombings and attacks against Westerners. But thats where Mann’s correctness ends. There are two reasons why Al Qaeda has maintained a presence: first, Mali’s poor capability. As the New York Times notes:

There is wide agreement among politicians, analysts and civil-society activists that Mr. Touré had left his relatively small army unprepared and underequipped to deal with a rebel force

Second, early on the central government did not attempt to defeat them despite that American insistence. In 2008, the New York Times quoted both American and Malian officials as saying that the Malian government had “adopted a live-and-let-live approach to the Qaeda threat, focusing instead on rebellious Tuareg tribesmen.” So the truth is the opposite of what Mann implies: the zone was being militarised to undermine Tuaregs – not for the Americans against Al Qaeda but of Mali’s own accord against the Tuaregs. That said, despite its reluctance to start targeting Al Qaeda in 2008, Mali did start to carry out operations against Al Qaeda in 2009 – after being unable or unwilling to deal with the threat from 2001-2008. But the point is that to portray a “decade” of action against Al Qaeda is wrong. Directed military action – as in Gaza, the West Bank, Pakistan and Iraq– works to decrease violence. This already makes it unlikely that counter-terrorism didn’t work in Mali – as though it is some aberration. The more likely reason for the lack of crushing of Al Qaeda, given the chronology of events, is the incompetence and the low quality of the Malian army and the strength of Al Qaeda. 

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