Gwynne Dyer: The Western-run war in Mali

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“Those days are over,” said Frances President Francois Hollande last month, when asked if French forces would intervene in the war between Islamist insurgents who have seized the northern half of Mali and the government in Bamako. But the days in question weren’t over for very long. Last Friday, France sent a squadron of fighter-bombers to the West African country to stop the Islamist fighters from taking the capital.

“We are making air raids the whole time,” said French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. “They are going on now. They will go on tonight. They will go on tomorrow.” Some 550 French combat troops are on the ground already, with up to 2,500 more to follow. Contingents of soldiers from the neighbouring countries of Nigeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Togo are scheduled to arrive as early as next week. It has turned into a real war.

It has also turned into a Western-run war in a Muslim country, despite the discouraging precedents of Afghanistan and Iraq. The government of Mali has asked for French help, and on Monday the United Nations Security Council unanimously supported France’s military intervention. The army of Mali, such as it is, will theoretically be in charge of the war
but everybody knows that the Malian army is useless.

In fact, the presence of Mali’s army at the front is usually counter-productive, as it is brutal, militarily incompetent, and prone to panic flight. The other African armies are of variable quality, but it is obviously French troops, and especially French air power, that will decide the outcome of the war. So has France bitten off more than it can chew? Is this going to end up like Afghanistan and Iraq?

The supporters of the war prefer to compare it with last year’s Western military intervention in Libya, another French initiative that was decided over one weekend. They like that analogy better because the Libyan intervention ended tolerably well, with the overthrow of the dictator, a democratically elected government, and no Western casualties. But the differences between Libya and Mali are greater than the similarities.

In Libya the rebels were trying to rid the country of Muammar Gaddafi, a loony, friendless dictator, and create a democratic future. The decision to intervene was made in Paris in only two hectic days, when it appeared that Gaddafi’s mercenary troops were about to overrun Benghazi and massacre the rebels. NATO served as the rebel air force, but no Western troops fought on the ground. And it worked.

With Mali, once again it was decided in a couple of days, and once again France has taken the lead. Once again Britain is sending some help as well (transport aircraft, but no troops or combat aircraft), and the United States is providing discreet logistical support. (U.S. Air Force tankers refuelled the French fighters on their way to Mali.) But that’s where the similarities end.

The West is supporting the government, not the rebels, in Mali. That government, behind a flimsy civilian facade, is controlled by the same thugs in uniform whose military coup last March, just one month before the scheduled democratic election, created the chaos that let the Islamist rebels conquer the northern half of the country. The young officers who now run the country are ignorant and violent, and having them on your side is not an asset.

The Islamist rebels are fanatical, intolerant, and violent, but they are well armed (a lot of advanced infantry weapons came on the market when Gaddafi’s regime collapsed) and they appear to be well trained. They have almost no popular support in 90-percent-Muslim Mali, whose version of Islam is much more moderate, but they have terrified the population of the north into submission or flight.

The insurgents are not short of money, either, as they receive secret subsidies from several Arab monarchies in the Gulf that have persuaded themselves, strangely, that subsidising radical Islamist movements in the far-flung fringes of the Muslim world is a good way to avoid being overthrown by radical Islamists at home. They are formidable opponents, and the war to free northern Mali may be long and hard.

Until recently the rebels seemed to be confined to Mali’s desert north, but last week they began to advance into southern Mali, where nine-tenths of the country’s 14 million people live. The Malian army collapsed, and Western intelligence sources estimated that the Islamists would capture the capital, Bamako, within two days. That would effectively give them control of the entire country.

Mali has long, unguarded borders with seven other African countries, and it is only 3,000 kilometres from France. So President Hollande ordered immediate military intervention to stop the Islamist advance, and we’ll all worry about the long-term consequences later. The next Western war against Islamist extremists has already started, and the question is whether it will end up like Afghanistan.

Nobody would like to know the answer to that more than the French. Except, of course, the Malians.

Comments (6) Add New Comment
Neil MacLeod
No mention of Areva, or Uranium for that matter. Interesting.
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Issac Chandler
>"The West is supporting the same thugs in uniform whose military coup last March, just one month before the scheduled democratic election"

Glenn Greenwald describes how the West spreads democracy and freedom in the world:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jan/12/us-saudi-arabia-liby...

Wars and coups allow for the redistribution of Mali farmland to corporations:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=O_pKnP-2mOQ#t=...
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Mahamerka (Alleged to be the Nepalese Tantric God of Stupidity)
Re: "The insurgents are not short of money, either, as they receive secret subsidies from several Arab monarchies in the Gulf that have persuaded themselves, strangely, that subsidising radical Islamist movements in the far-flung fringes of the Muslim world is a good way to avoid being overthrown by radical Islamists at home."

Don't be coy, WHICH Gulf Monarchies specifically? And what is your standard of proof in making this statement, the civil case rule of "the balance of probability--(51%)" or the far more more stringent one used for criminal conviction of "beyond a reasonable doubt?"

If the insurgents really have no local support, and the sources of finance are clear, might it not be an efficient course to "tactfully" approach the responsible Gulf Monarchs.

But we all know that these things are liable not so simple.... For one thing, two of the attackers were claimed by the Algerian government to be Canadians of Arab ancestry. Is any financial or other support possibly also coming informally from some Canadian ethnic communities (probably not Malian), as opposed to the mysterious "Gulf Monarchies?" I know nothing about the Mali case, but noticed that around ten or fifteen years ago some elements of the Nepalese Diaspora in Canada and the United States supported the Maoist insurrection there, in my view foolishly exacerbating a difficult situation in that country, and this support was significant. The same with the Canadian Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora earlier supporting the Tamil Tigers led secessionist movement.

If you have more information about the financing of the Mali insurrection, I think you should present it transparently, in detail, and clearly evaluate its reliability. This might help.
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Mahamerka
Re: the implication that judging by the fact that the jihadi rebels have no local support, the Mali insurrection may be merely a sort of byproduct of some Gulf State Governments’ cynically trying to make sure that the approved-jihads-of-the-month are all in distant and remote areas of the Islamicate world, very far from the Gulf, and intended to draw off the local hotheaded jihadi elements with dreams of glory on foreign fields and the prospect of Emirships and plentiful jagirs….but war is bloody and conveniently few return. Actually there may be a bit more to it, to wit, a larger jihadi strategicidea that should not be underestimated.
Whether it’s a foolish fantasy or not, the reader may decide, but in 2004 an interesting book by Abu Bakr Naji on Jihadi Islamist strategy in the Middle East and North Africa appeared in Arabic, the title of which has been translated as “The Management of Savagery.” The full text in English may be viewed at http://www.wcfia.harvard.edu/olin/images/Management%20of%20Savagery%20-%... and a digest of the contents at http://www.ctc.usma.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/Stealing-Al-Qaidas-Pl...
It is suggested that anyone curious about a possible strategic rationale above and beyond diversion of restless Gulf youth, of events in Mali, seen from the jihadist point of view, might find it interesting to glance at the above sources. From the sound of it, the rebels are pursuing the war in a way – notably failure to create local support-- that according to Naji and similar writers, invites loss, and the Western managers of the “counter revolution” arguably appear to also be trying to follow Naji’s prescriptions in pursuing strategies of engaging proxies (as observed, not without its own risks if they seriously alienate the populace rather than being seen as liberators) to fight the war where possible, which he admits is liable to undermine the chances of insurgent success, as compared to where the US or other Great Power is drawn into fighting the rebels directly. It was only an emergency that provoked the direct French intervention, and their engagement is likely to be temporary if it is possible to effect this. But, to the extent that the action in Mali may be a calculated jihadi strategic move, the matter is perhaps of greater significance than merely some Gulf youth blowing off steam overseas in an ugly way.
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McRocket
What goes on in Mali, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq and so on is NONE of anyone's business but those in those particular countries (short of major genocide).

Let them fight their own civil war.

Offer them medicine and aid...but NO weapons or military assistance of ANY kind (again, unless major genocide takes place - like in Rwanda aback in '94).
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Mahamerka
The site needs a "Preview' button, my comment above got garbled

A corrected version of the bottom is below:

"But we all know that these things are liable not so simple.... For one thing, two of the attackers were claimed by the Algerian government to be Canadians of Arab ancestry. Is any financial or other support possibly also coming informally from some Canadian ethnic communities (probably not Malian), as opposed to the mysterious "Gulf Monarchies?"

"But we all know that these things are liable not so be so simple.... For one thing, two of the attackers in the recent attempted kidnapping in Algeria alleged to have been in support of the Mali insurrection(s)were claimed by the Algerian government to be Canadians of Arab (or possibly Berber)ancestry. Is any financial or other support possibly also coming informally from some Canadian ethnic communities (probably not Malian), as opposed to the mysterious "Gulf Monarchies?"

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