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Jan 24, 2013

Mapping a reminiscent non-war in Africa

Trouble in Mali has US and UK forces on alert join a new front in the war on terror. But those rushing to chase al-Qaeda and offshoots in Africa should know the history and complexity.


Maps can be deceiving. It’s long been obvious that the deep-seated Australian fear of “forces to the north” — red menace, yellow peril, boat people, etc — was partly because it appeared they would simply flow down to us, through sheer force of gravity. Now take a look at Mali. The place is shaped like an hourglass, one part in central north Africa, the other right in the middle of coastal west Africa.

With an al-Qaeda-style group driving a rebellion in the north, and moving south, and the French already putting boots on the ground to quell it, the illusion of up and down will prove irresistible. Al-Qaeda slowly dripping down through Africa. Ready to join up with Boko Haram in Nigeria? North Africa is being Islamised!

Cue David Cameron, all but echoing Dubya, claiming “terrorism” — by which he means violent Wahhabist/Salafist small-group war and terror — would last a generation. Indeed, the colonial attitude has been much on display throughout, with foreign secretary William Hague conceding the region was part of a “French sphere of influence”. Barack Obama made a place-holding non-committal remark to the effect that the French were handling it, which incurred a fresh round of “appeasement” chatter from the US Right.

Apart from that, many of the usual suspects have been quieter than usual on the matter of the Mali intervention, even though it is a whole new opening in the “long war”. For what remains of the neocons, the intervention has none of the crusading swagger of Iraq and Afghanistan, the idea that it was part of a grand, near-utopian project of modernisation and liberation. This is just a dirty little maintenance war, of the type the French have been running in northwest Africa for half a century.

But nor has there been a great deal of protest or attention from the other side. One suspects this is because the advance of AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), barely contested by the Malian army, has given many people pause for thought. The weakness of many north African states — indeed, their vestigial character in some cases — ostensibly makes them small match for a disciplined force with money behind it, as AQIM are.

Indeed, AQIM has been based in northern Mali, under various names, for around a decade. It was invited and fostered there by President Amadou Toumani Touré, who was in power from 2002 to last year, when he was ousted by a coup. Like all Malian leaders, Toure had been determined to resist any demands by the Tuareg people — who dominate the north — for regional autonomy or independence.

To that end, according to Al Jazeera‘s May Ying Welsh, Toure allowed AQIM (which was of Arab Algerian origin) to operate in northern Mali, as a countervailing power. They made money from drug trafficking and western hostage taking, from which Toure’s government took a cut, and they acted as a countervailing power to Tuareg groups. The Tuaregs meanwhile had been sustained by Muammar Gaddafi, who had given many of them a place in his army.

When Gaddafi was overthrown, many of the Tuaregs returned to Mali, taking weapons in lieu of the pay they were no longer getting. The Tuareg revolt, which has flared at several points since the early 1960s, burst into life again, headed by a secular group the NMLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad), and an Islamist Tuareg group Ansar Dine. Their early gains prompted a coup against Toure, which then left the nation isolated from co-operation with other nations. As the revolt progressed Ansar Dine began to overwhelm the NMLA, and a new group MOJWA (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa), created by black African AQIM members, also became involved. Ansar Dine and MOJWA began to co-operate, and the result was the sudden Islamist turn in the uprising — made visible by the destruction of graves and mosques in Timbuktu.

“These are neat little non-wars, planned far away from the action, on neat little maps.”

The Islamist sweep has thus been a result of piggybacking on a more traditional national uprising by a people who have been locked out of power since Mali was created, and whose cause has legitimacy. Now that Islamist and Sharia law agendas have taken over, the movement is fast losing support among the people of northern Mali. The French appear to have a measure of support for a quick intervention, but that would most likely dissipate very quickly if they hang around for any length of time.

The neocons are, as ever, trying to turn this messy local event into a replay of 1938, Hitler, appeasement etc, with Obama cast in the role of Chamberlain. There has been much less comment from the other side, perhaps because the prospect of a spreading Islamist north African insurgency tends to concentrate the mind somewhat. So too does the prize in that part of the world, one that Gaddafi himself had earlier had an eye on — uranium, both in northern Mali and also neighbouring Niger. Currently this powers French reactors. They would be worried about a price hike or cut-off from a new regime and the prospect of an al-Qaedist regime with its own nuclear raw material.

In case there were any doubt that we were in for round two of something, Hillary Clinton dispelled it in her testimony to the Senate — ostensibly on the Benghazi embassy raid which killed the US ambassador — to say there was a war on. While the language was of supporting local states rather than boots on the ground — which no US government is likely to do — they were in it for the long run:

“This is going to be a very serious ongoing threat because if you look at the size of northern Mali, if you look at the topography, it’s not only desert, it’s caves. [This] sounds reminiscent. We are in for a struggle. We’ve got to have a better strategy.”

Reminiscent. Y’think? On the other side, there were those willing to characterise it as “blowback” from the Libyan uprising, and Western support given to it. That is true as a proximate cause, but all revolutions produce such side effects. Further back, it is Gaddafi himself who bears a fair share of the blame, for his own imperial interventions in north Africa — backing winners and losers, such as the Tuareg groups who returned with weapons and training, after he was gone.

On the US side, the pitch to a better strategy is of course to the boutique outsourced modular war of drones — hoping they can kill violent Islamist leaders (and family and friends) at a significantly faster rate than the attacks recruit new ones. No doubt, having avoided the entanglements of the Bush era, team Obama is all too smart to mess it up.

These are neat little non-wars, planned far away from the action, on neat little maps. And it can only go wrong if, well, if maps are deceiving.


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27 thoughts on “Mapping a reminiscent non-war in Africa

  1. Gavin Moodie

    Thanx very much for this, which I found most informative.

  2. crawfordyorke

    further information and funny if you like that sort of humour:


  3. Simon Mansfield

    Of course Guy left out that nearly every country is on board with this intervention. Russia is helping. Nigeria is sending troops. The US govt is happy the French are taking the lead, which kinda messes up the neocon anti-France position from 2003. And instead highlights just how successful US foreign policy has been since 2008 in building multilateral responses.

    Is Guy really the person to be writing about this issue given the neo-Marxist prism he sees nearly ever issue through. For Europe and France in particular – the issue involves refugees and the danger of spill over terrorist attacks into Europe itself. Uranium supplies are really a low priority issue given the very low global price for yellowcake.

    Meanwhile, when it comes to Drones – the new evil of choice to rail against for the left – let’s ignore that prior to modern GPS guided missiles and bombs the usual tactic was to carpet bomb a town, city, country – with extremely high collateral damage levels.

    Modern warfare – while expensive per unit of munition – has probably a 99% lower rate of collateral damage compared to what it was in WW2 for a similar sortie. Absolutely it sucks to be part of that 1% “collateral damage” – but put in context it’s a very different reality to what it was like 40-70 years ago.

    Just for once, can Crikey leave the Brunswick/Marrickville mindset out of its reports on complex international issues and directly interview people who are across the issues rather than selectively cutting and pasting stories together with quotes and text from other media that only justify one’s own pre-judgments on an issue.

  4. John Bennetts

    What Gavin said.

  5. paddy

    Damn you Guy. You’re expected to simplify these matters for the clueless like me.
    Instead, you’ve mercilessly pointed out the devilish complexity of one small part of the African jigsaw.
    Well done!

  6. minnamurra

    Me too! but OMG here we go again……making enemies out of people who could go either way given a different set of opportunities

  7. minnamurra

    Me too! but OMG here we go again……making enemies out of people who could go either way given a different set of opportunities

  8. Mark Duffett

    Maps can be deceiving indeed. I still reckon a significant subliminal part of Cold War fear and overestimation of Russian power was down to inflated perception of its size caused by overuse of the Mercator projection.

    But, while it might be a factor, I wonder whether France is all that worried about its uranium supplies. Uranium comprises only a small fraction of the costs of building and operating power plants (such is its energy density), and other countries (not least Australia) will be happy to oblige. The stuff isn’t that rare.

  9. j.oneill

    As useful a summary as this is, it still does not cover the full complexity of the issue. For those interested there have been some excellent articles recently by Patrick Cockburn in the Independent (UK) and Pepe Escobar in Asian Times online.

    Just as an illustration, Mr Rundle does not discuss the agenda of the Americans who now have troops in 37 African countries. Their motives are the usual ones: control of resources and blocking Chinese advances among African countries. One also has to question why the Malian president was overthrown five weeks before an election in which he was not standing for re-election? It is of course just a coincidence that the coup officers had all been trained in the US.

  10. Simon Mansfield

    Australia like Africa will be so much better under Chinese rule. Where shall we base the PRC troops. Mt Isa, Cubbie Station, Pilbara. Just weird what the left of today has become.

  11. Guy Rundle


    well, a couple of replies – yes, other nations are involved but only vestigially in the case of non-african ones, and not very effectively in the case of african ones. The actions of the French, the UK and the US are what matter in this respect.

    As to US interests in Africa, well the article was about Mali and was complex enough. Something on US policy in Africa would have taken a whole edition of Crikey. It’s unlikely to be the last article on the region.

  12. Ian

    Thanks j.oneill for putting the whole thing in context.

    The comments of Simon and the other militant right wingers who can’t help themselves when it comes to insulting the left and lobbying for war and intervention rather than negotiation & tolerance need to be challenged.

    For those interested in some in depth discussions on the Mali conflict Democracy Now (aired on 15 January and available on the internet) had a lengthy interview with May Ying Welsh and another analyst about it all.

    May Ying is a great journalist. She also did a a great documentary on the mostly unreported Bahrain uprising and crackdown.

  13. AR

    References to Tuareg being islamists seems a bit stretched – given their animist leanings and strong antecedents, I reckon the Salafist/Wahabists must ritually cleanse themselves after every interaction.

  14. Charles Richardson

    I honestly don’t know what Simon’s talking about. I’ve read the story twice and I can’t find a trace of Guy’s Marxism in it; it seems a thoroughly balanced piece.

  15. Christopher Nagle

    Do I detect a slightly smug left of centre complacency here? Can I smell the sweet aroma of ideological schadenfreude, as we survey the bumbling incompetence of the neo-cons and their semi-colonial bum boys? Tres amusant mon ami…

    Personally, I cannot view the rise and rise of radical Islamic groups with quite such levity, because I think they and their fundamentalist brothers and sisters in other religions are starting a reformationary convulsion which maybe every bit as far reaching and violent as the one that Martin Luther started in 1517.

    In the end , the legitimacy of secular society will be up for grabs. It already is in many parts of the world, moving from radical splinter groups into the mainstream.

    Beneath the institutional power of western imperialism is an existential and social mess its enemies can almost ‘smell’.

    Very likely, this is a battle secular societies will lose to the sectarians, because the former no longer have the resolve to fight for anything to the bitter end, like they once did. 60 years of consumer satisfactions have made them soft, lazy and full of escapist rationalizations when the going gets tough. The winners will be the ones who are prepared to take really huge casualties to reach their goals. We no longer have the stomach for it, unless victory is quick and with miniscule losses.

    In assymetrical warfare, that doesn’t work.

  16. Simon Mansfield

    CN – that’s why Drones are so important to future warfare. Few in the West have the stomach for old style warfare where you send 1000s ashore to die in a firestorm of bullets. Iraq – for now – is probably the last time we’ll see large scale losses among western forces in warfare.

    Obama figured that out very early and is using the UAVs/Drones to reduce US losses in Afghanistan and avoid putting troops on the ground in Pakistan.

    30 years ago before modern battlefield medicine significantly changed the ratio of injuries to deaths – the losses in Iraq would have been around 50-100,000 dead for the US. All those breathing injured troops now back home in the US will have a very long term impact on how the US deals with future conflicts – no matter what the nutters in the GOP might like to pretend otherwise.

    The big story of Mali is just how many countries are partaking in either on the ground action or hard support with equipment, transport and in the case of China – staying quiet. Guy leaves this almost entirely out of the report. Maybe tomorrow he’ll expand his reporting to include this.

    If there gets past the moderation robot – I’ll be amazed.

  17. Simon Mansfield

    Maybe Crikey should publish a list of banned words for the comment engine.

  18. mikeb

    I’ve read a couple of blogs from people living in the area and it is quite alarming. The local population seem to want no part of the so called islamists coming down from the north – most of whom seeming to be bored young men with nothing to do after Gaddafi’s demise. Islam is their banner but I suspect the reality is that a bit of pillaging appeals. The outside involvement seems to be welcomed by the Govt and locals, so as long that is the case then I think international involvement should be supported.

  19. Mark Duffett

    Right or not, Simon Mansfield is correct. If you want to mutter darkly about imperialist activities in Africa, it’s China you need to be looking at, much more than the US or France.

  20. Simon Mansfield

    Ian – are you really saying we should tolerate the Taliban, AQ and their fellow travelers.

    Read that seminal book on the Politics of Tolerance. A very dangerous word that most people have little understanding as to what it actually implies.

    Indifference yes. Tolerance – well think hard about what it actually means.

    A topic that Guy could probably address very well.

    As to right wing – you gotta be kidding – since when did the Right have a monopoly on waging war. And as to negotiation – give me a break – since when did the Greens and the hard left ever give a toss about negotiation and the need for compromise.

    For the record – I actually thing Guy is one of the best contemporary writers Australia has produced in decades. His command and use of the English language should be Exhibit A in all journalism courses taught today in Australia – on how to write prose worth reading.

  21. Simon Mansfield

    Come on Crikey – how can there be a discussion if every second post gets stuck in moderation. Post the banned word list – or put some sort of preview system in place that allows posters to review their post and moderate the post directly on the basis of tolerated words.

  22. Mike Flanagan

    Without concurring with some of Simon Mansfields views expressed in this string I am compelled to agree with his valient attempts to comprehend the moderating policy of Crikey.
    I have read and reread the published policy to increase my understanding why many posts are held up in the hands of Mother Superior of the holy order of moderators , all to no avail.

  23. Venise Alstergren

    SIMON MANSFIELD, MIKE FLANAGAN: As a fellow sufferer of many years of moderation you have my sympathy. I can tell you one area that Crikey’s moderating machine has a field day with. But, I can’t tell you outright, or I’ll be moderated.

    Think of a country in the Middle East which is not Muslim and know any mention of it, or the people who live in it, or the history of the people who live in it, will be moderated. Islam and its countries suffer no such constriction.

  24. Venise Alstergren

    PS: Rundle is indeed a very fine writer; except for when he writes about American elections, this is where he approaches greatness.

  25. Mike Flanagan

    Hi Venise
    So glad to see your contributions.
    I sometimes believe the good mother works in hand with a sales plan of churning subscribers rather than expanding her market.

  26. Mike Flanagan

    and Venise , as I scratch my head in wonderment at your suggestion I can only ask if you mean 4×2 Aye?

  27. Rena Zurawel

    I thought it was about gold. France has to give the gold back to Germany. And they obviously think that the Mali gold is theirs. Why all of a sudden we are interested in yet another ‘tribal’ conflict?


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