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The War on Libya - Blowback in Mali
The price of Western intervention ...
By Owen Jones
Source: The Independent
No scrutiny, no build-up, no parliamentary vote, not even a softening-up exercise.
Britain is now involved in yet another military conflict in a Muslim land, or so we have
been informed. British aircraft are flying to Mali while France bombs the country,
arguing that Islamist militia must be driven back to save Europe from the creation of a
“terrorist state”. Amnesty International and West Africa experts warned of the potential
disaster of foreign military intervention; the bombs raining on the Malian towns of
Konna, Léré and Douentza suggest they have been definitively ignored.
Mali’s current agony has only just emerged in our headlines, but the roots go back
generations. Like the other Western colonial powers that invaded and conquered
Africa from the 19th century onwards, France used tactics of divide-and-rule in Mali,
leading to entrenched bitterness between the nomadic Tuareg people – the base of
the current revolt – and other communities in Mali.
To some Westerners, this is a distant past to be ignored, moved on from, and
certainly not used to preclude noble interventions; but the consequences are still
being felt on a daily basis. Initially, the French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius,
suggested its colonial legacy ruled out a France-led intervention; its sudden
involvement is far more rapid than expected.
But this intervention is itself the consequence of another. The Libyan war is frequently
touted as a success story for liberal interventionism. Yet the toppling of Muammar
Gaddafi’s dictatorship had consequences that Western intelligence services probably
never even bothered to imagine. Tuaregs – who traditionally hailed from northern Mali
– made up a large portion of his army. When Gaddafi was ejected from power, they
returned to their homeland: sometimes forcibly so as black Africans came under
attack in post-Gaddafi Libya, an uncomfortable fact largely ignored by the Western
Awash with weapons from Libya’s own turmoil, armed Tuaregs saw an opening for
their long-standing dream for national self-determination. As the rebellion spread, the
democratically elected President Amadou Toumani Touré was deposed in a military
coup and – despite allowing a transitional civilian-led government to take power – the
army retains its dominance.
There can certainly be no sympathy for the militia now fighting the Malian
government. Originally, it was the secular nationalists of the National Movement for
the Liberation of Azawad who led the uprising; they have now been pushed aside by
Islamist jihadists with a speed that has shocked foreign analysts. Rather than
achieving an independent Tuareg state, they have far more sweeping ambitions,
linking up with similar groups based in northern Nigeria. Amnesty International reports
horrendous atrocities: amputations, sexual violence, the use of child soldiers, and
rampant extra-judicial executions.
But don’t fall for a narrative so often pushed by the Western media: a perverse
oversimplification of good fighting evil, just as we have seen imposed on Syria’s brutal
civil war. Amnesty reports brutality on the part of Malian government forces, too.
When the conflict originally exploded, Tuaregs were arrested, tortured, bombed and
killed by the security forces, “apparently only on ethnic grounds”, Amnesty says. Last
July, 80 inmates arrested by the army were stripped to their underwear, jammed into a
5sqm cell; cigarettes were burnt into their bodies; and they were forced to sodomise
each other. Back in September 2012, 16 Muslim preachers belonging to the Dawa
group were rounded up at a checkpoint and summarily executed by the army. These
are acts committed by those who are now our allies.
When the UN Security Council unanimously paved the way for military force to be
used at some point last month, experts made clear warnings that must still be listened
to. The International Crisis Group urged a focus on a diplomatic solution to restore
stability, arguing that intervention could exacerbate a growing inter-ethnic conflict.
Amnesty warned that “an international armed intervention is likely to increase the
scale of human-rights violations we are already seeing in this conflict”. Paul Rogers,
professor of peace studies at Bradford University, has argued that past wars show
that “once started, they can take alarming directions, have very destructive results,
and often enhance the very movements they are designed to counter”.
It is conceivable that this intervention could – for a time – achieve its goals of pushing
back the Islamist militias, and shore up Mali’s government. But the Libyan war was
seen as a success, too; and here we are now engaging with its catastrophic blowback.
In Afghanistan, Western forces remain engaged in a never-ending war which has
already helped destabilised Pakistan, leading to drone attacks that have killed
hundreds of civilians and unleashed further chaos. The price of Western interventions
may often be ignored by our media, but it is still paid nonetheless.
Western intervention led by France, supported by Britain and with possible US drone
attacks on the way will undoubtedly fuel the narrative of radical Islamist groups. As
Professor Rogers puts it to me, it will be portrayed as “one more example of an
assault on Islam”. With the speed and reach of modern forms of communication,
radical groups in Western Africa and beyond will use this escalating war as evidence
of another front opened against Muslims.
It is disturbing – to say the least – how Cameron has led Britain into Mali’s conflict
without even a pretence at consultation. Troops will not be sent, we are told; but the
term “mission creep” exists for a reason, and an escalation could surely trigger
deeper British involvement. The West has a terrible record of aligning itself with the
most dubious of allies: the side we have picked are far from human-rights-loving