The French in Mali are being counterproductive

By Jonathan Power

Are we in Mali being caught up in the fallout from the reaction to the reaction of 9/11? It very much looks like it. First, the destruction of the World Trade Center. Then the first reaction – the bombing of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the subsequent war and the loose talk about “the clash of civilizations”.

Then the second reaction – anger and hostility from one end of the Islamic world to the other. Although the dust has now settled on that, thanks not least to Al Qaeda overstepping its mark and killing Muslims, there is in some parts a residual hostility- a sea in which the few remaining Islamic militants can swim.

But these militants by and large have not done well. Since 9/11 there has not been one successful attack on the USA. In Europe in what few attacks there have been the perpetuators have not been part of Al Qaeda, merely sympathisers and imitators. Most Muslims have been revolted by what is has been and is being done in their name – in Indonesia, Malaysia, The Gulf states, Turkey, Jordan, and the 160 million in India. Not one of these countries has produced one militant with a foreign agenda.

There are bits and pieces of Al Qaeda here and there – members or sympathisers. They are scattered in small groups – in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, northern Nigeria and Mali.

It’s doubtful if the militants could grow larger, with one big “unless” – unless the US or Israel bombs Iran. That could trigger a resurgence of Al Qaeda. Iran, which has shunned the organization, could welcome its support, and parts of the Muslim world would be back to feeling hostile to the US.

Military intervention rarely works. I can only think of two recent cases when it did – when the British went into Sierra Leone and put the country back on its feet after it had been raped by Charles Taylor, recently condemned in the International War Crimes Court, and when the French went into the Ivory Coast to restore democracy. In both cases they confronted ragtag forces with only a domestic agenda.

Did intervention work in Vietnam? The Americans believed it was a domino – if it fell to communism so would all the countries around. But there was no North Vietnamese-Soviet-Chinese imperialistic axis. Getting rid of the Americans and conquering South Vietnam was the limited purpose. The US was forced to retreat. Now the same is happening in Afghanistan.

The only interventions that regularly work are UN ones. But the blue helmets usually only go in when a peace has been negotiated and they are needed to hold the ring and to help pacify the country.

In Libya the West should have left the Arab Spring uprising to itself. By bombing and encouraging the militants in their violence they made a post-Gadhafi transition more difficult. It destabilized the country and pushed the militants who Gadhafi kept under control into the Sahara, in particular into Mali. The militants should have been encouraged by the West to aim for a non-violent take-over as they were in Tunisia and Egypt, not fed with arms and supported by aerial bombardment.

The French have over-reacted in Mali. The Tuaregs, with their long-time call for autonomy or independence, have now split from the Islamic militants. The militants for their part only captured three small backwater towns using two columns of around 150 vehicles with around 600 men. What could they have done if they had advanced into the capital, Bamako, with its population of 1.8 million?

They would have been quickly set upon by residents, overwhelmed, disarmed and swallowed up. The authority of the Malian government could have been secured by the West African troops now deployed in Mali. They could keep the peace UN-style.

President Barack Obama said in in his inaugural address “A decade of war is now ending”. And the US does not need a surrogate, France. Nor does it need France to stir the world-wide Islamic pot.

It is not too late for the French to change their policy. Going after all the “friends of Al Qaeda” deep into the desert is mistaken. (They are no more than that, with their very loose connections with the original Al Qaeda.) The French should stop where they are with the relief of Timbuktu and two other small desert towns. (Since they are now on the spot its precious manuscripts and other historic artifacts need to be saved and secured- a small contingent can do that.)

The large majority of the French forces should pack their bags. Some can stay to help re-train the Malian army and police forces, but that should be it. The Malian government, for its part, should consider the reasonable demand of the Tuaregs for autonomy.

The French should look at the lessons of history. If they stay there is a good chance they will feed the growth of the militants not defeat them. Intervention does not work.

Copyright: Jonathan Power 2013

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