France used to rule Mali as part of its West African Empire, and still has deep financial, military, commercial and intelligence interests in the region.
Not so long ago, France installed West African leaders, financed them, and kept them in power using small garrisons of tough Foreign Legionnaires. Secret payments continue today. Agents from France’s DGSE intelligence agency, and “special advisors” are active behind the scenes in West Africa as well as North Africa.
French colonial troops and Legionnaires battled the Tuareg throughout the 19th century and half of the 20th in a romantic little struggle on which the famed Victorian novel, “Beau Geste”, was based. Tuareg are fierce desert nomads often called the “blue men of the Sahara” because their skins become tinted by the blue veils they always wear to cover their faces.
Mali has long been Africa’s backwaters — undeveloped, weak, landlocked, with few binding connections to the West — and was not even an afterthought when NATO intervention in Libya helped topple Moammar Gadhafi. Many of the more radical Tuareg had joined the army of the former Libyan dictator as mercenaries.
Gadhafi’s collapse, however, unleashed the events that triggered what has taken place in Mali, as thousands of armed Tuareg tribesmen poured back into northern Mali after years of service in Gadhafi’s army, bringing rebellion and uncounted tons of Libyan weapons, which they then turned on the Malian army. They fought for an independent Tuareg state under the name National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).This spring, Tuareg rebels drove the Malian army out of the country’s northern regions within only a few weeks. They proclaimed the Tuareg nation of Azawad, carved from northern Mali, and bits of southern Algeria and Mauritania.
They also aligned themselves with the Islamist group Ansar Dine, as well as with the Unity Movement for Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), which is affiliated with Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a small, violent anti-Western movement from Algeria that has nothing to do with the original al-Qaeda, but expropriated its name.
In a March coup, US-trained army officers overthrew the elected civilian government in Bamako of Amadou Touré. The army officers, led by Captain Amadou Sanogo, rebelled in the hope of improving their desperate situation in the fight against the Tuareg, accusing President Touré of “incompetence in the fight against Islamic terror.”
Just days after Touré was ousted, Tuareg and Ansar Dine fighters rolled into Gao and Timbuktu, black Islamist flags flying from their all-terrain vehicles, and now control those cities completely. These Islamists set about destroying ancient tombs of assorted local saints, producing huge indignation from Westerners, who could not find Timbuktu on a map if their lives depended on it. Orthodox Muslims denounce worship of saints as blasphemy and idolatry.
Overnight, the withdrawal of government authority in Mali has rendered an area four times the size of France ungovernable. Al-Qaida-linked groups have long had a presence in northern Mali, but never before have they wielded such territorial control.
Now, AQIM controls Timbuktu and the vast region to its west. The Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa controls Gao, the north’s largest town. Ansar Dine controls the very north, centered at Kidal. Although the exact association among the groups is opaque, they often fight side by side.
Islamist groups now move nearly unchallenged across a territory that stretches from Tindouf in western Algeria to the border between Libya and Chad in the east, and into the northern part of Nigeria to the south.
And, just like that, a new extremist-led sub-state was born.
Northern Mali is now an open playground for Islamist extremists, smugglers and opportunists. Often described as a no-man’s land, northern Mali’s Saharan dunes may not seem like much of a prize — yet, for al-Qaida-affiliated extremists, they are. Northern Mali sits along lucrative ancient trade routes that are today some of the busiest illicit highways for drugs, arms and smugglers. Northern Mali’s amorphous and rough terrain makes it a logistical and tactical nightmare for invaders.
Reports from residents and local journalists who travel in the region suggest the Islamist extremists are moving to cement their control — instituting conservative Islamic Shariah law, using money from hostage ransoms and the drug trade to recruit more and more young men into their ranks in preparations to defend their strongholds, training new recruits, and inviting others to join.
The north’s economy, shattered by the war, is picking back up again as residents return, more willing to accept occupation at home than life as an urban refugee.
Yet there is no sense that any move is coming soon to retake the north, despite evidence that extremists rapidly are consolidating control — something that will make what already is seen as a daunting task even more so.
In Mali today, the scale of the crisis belies the snail-like pace of the international response.
U.S. diplomats and military officials are buzzing to and from West African and European capitals, trying to finalize an intervention plan. U.S. efforts for now are focused on regional diplomacy, a course that is expected to end, eventually, in a Western-backed military intervention similar to an offensive the African Union launched to counter al-Qaida’s affiliate in Somalia. Washington claims that Somalia was ‘a big success’ because Washington spent $500 million backing an ‘African Proxy Force’ that allegedly ‘drove out al Qaeda’ in that country. Now they are using the same recycled narrative in Mali, fighting ‘Islamic extremists’ there – promoting freedom and democracy in the region, etc.
It is no coincidence that massive untapped oil reserves in the Puntland region in north-eastern Somalia were recently announced in early 2012. This was followed by an international conference hosted by the UK which was a mere pre-negotiation meeting to discuss how oil assets would be divided up between the US, UK and other remaining energy players – demonstrating what is the real agenda with AFRICOM.
Mali’s vast potential wealth lies in mining, agricultural commodities and oil. And these proven reserves are not currently exploited. Interestingly enough, Ghana and Mali together account for 5.8 percent of total world gold production. These assets are the true focus of US interests in Africa – not humanitarian concerns.
Barack Obama has been carrying the AFRICOM ball down the field after the directive was launched under George W. Bush in 2007. Obama supporters will naturally give this president a free pass on Africa because he is partly of African descent, not realizing that he is running the exact same agenda as his Republican predecessor.
Is President Obama ready for the US to wage yet another little conflict – on credit? Doesn’t Washington have enough conflicts? Apparently not!