France Re-conquers Mali

It’s hard to believe that just a decade ago the U.S. press was filled with the crudest sort of France-bashing. This was in response to President Jacques Chirac’s opposition to the U.S. war on Iraq, based as it was entirely on lies and destined as it was to a disastrous outcome.

“Why not an embargo on cheese?” asked Washington Post columnist and Pulitzer prize-winner Charles Krauthammer in October 2002, furious that France did not accept the lies, and offer to help inflict “shock and awe” on the Iraqis.  A few months into the invasion, the New York Times’ Thomas L. Friedman (another Pulitzer prize winner) accused France of wanting “America to sink in a quagmire [in Iraq] in the crazy hope that a weakened United States will pave the way for France to assume its ‘rightful’  place as America’s equal, if not superior in shaping the world’s affairs….” The neocon National Review’s John J. Miller wrote a book with a Harvard lecturer entitled Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America’s Disastrous Relationship with France.

(Yes, the France of Lafayette, the France that sent thousands of troops and naval support that decided the outcome of the Revolutionary War, the France that gifted the Statue of Liberty to the U.S., the France that fought alongside U.S. troops in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2012, “our oldest enemy”!)

There was no end to the bad-mouthing. Idiots in Congress vented their spleen by ordering the three House of Representatives cafeterias to rename French fries “freedom fries” on the menu in March 2003. “This action today,” they announced, “is a small but symbolic effort to show the strong displeasure many on Capitol Hill have with our so-called ally, France.”

Then it became clear (by at least the end of 2003, to anyone paying attention) that Chirac had been right. There had been no threat from Iraq, no good reason to destroy the country’s already rotting infrastructure, kill tens of thousands of civilians, unleash sectarian division and push millions into exile. Rather than smirk in satisfaction, or suggest war crimes trials, Chirac promptly reconciled with George W. Bush. In December 2003 First Lady Laura Bush visiting Paris paid a social call on Chirac, whom the White House described as “gracious, friendly and charming.” CNN reported that “Chirac kissed Bush’s hand as he welcomed her to the Presidential Palace in Paris for Monday’s short meeting. White House officials said Chirac told the first lady he hoped the United States and France could put their differences over the war in Iraq, which have strained relations between the two countries, behind them. ‘Let bygones be bygones, we all agree we need to rebuild Iraq,’ the officials quoted Chirac as saying.”  No hard feelings between old friends and allies!

The joint Franco-American action in February 2004, in Haiti, the former French colony (occupied by the U.S. military from 1915 to 1934), to topple President Jean-Bertrand Aristide consummated the reconciliation. In November of that year the French Air Force attacked the tiny air force of the Ivory Coast, destroying all their aircraft, to U.S. applause. French troops continued to fight alongside U.S. troops in Afghanistan (to 2012!) The little tiff between imperialists the year before was all but forgotten.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy took the lead in organizing the western assault on Libya from March to November 2011. Sarkozy’s successor (“socialist”) François Hollande takes the lead in arming the “opposition” in Syria. France has, next to the U.S., the largest number of overseas military powers, in the Pacific, Africa, Mediterranean and Caribbean. In short, France remains very much a U.S. ally and soul mate if not always a team player. Its ruling class has its own global agenda that periodically conflicts with Washington’s; this is what Marxists call “inter-imperialist rivalry.” But the two are fundamentally on the same side.

Praising an Imperialist Initiative

Thus the U.S. media has been gushing about how France, “one of the U.S.’s oldest friends,” “one of the oldest U.S. allies,” has been performing so splendidly in its latest imperialist intervention—in northern Mali. (Joe Biden echoes the praise. “Let me say again,” he told Hollande in Paris the other day, “on behalf of the president, the people of the United States, we applaud your decisiveness and I might add the incredible competence and capability of your French military forces.”)

The mainstream press unfailingly depicts the French deployment as an effort to fight al-Qaeda-linked terrorist groups who would make Mali a center for global terrorism. Headlines like  “US Pledges Help to France Against al-Qaeda Rebels in Mali” (ABC, Jan. 14) and “French Oust al Qaeda from Gao, Mali” (, Jan. 26) leave no doubt that al-Qaeda is the problem provoking prompt and righteous action.

We’re also told, and shown some footage, of the Malian people(s) joyously welcoming the French.  “’Vive la France!’ cry Malians in the capital” (USA Today, Jan. 18). “Malians grateful to the French” (AP, Jan. 22). “Malians praise French troops: ‘If they leave, I will leave” (MSNBC, Jan. 25). “Malians celebrate, French-led forces clear Timbuktu” (Reuters, Jan. 27). Etcetera.

Isn’t heart-warming to suppose that the French imperialists, who conquered what is now Mali in stages from 1880 to 1898, only granting it formal independence in 1960, have now so ingratiated themselves among the dancing, happy people that they’re waving the tricolour?  According to the Global Post, Jan. 23 (picked up by Salon etc.): “Malians want the French to stay.” It makes one recall similar reports and scenes of joy in Baghdad as U.S. forces toppled Saddam’s Baathists. (Remember the scenes of kids happily waving perfectly manufactured plastic U.S. flags for the cameras in the nearly deserted Paradise Square in Baghdad? Dick Cheney had said “we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators,” and so yes,  such a greeting was staged. But how quickly we learned that the Iraqi people were not at all happy about being occupied, and would fight hard, violently and nonviolently, to force the invaders out.)

I’m not suggesting that the euphoria in Mali is staged. I’m convinced that communities occupied by outsiders arriving from Libya, Algeria and other countries, who imposed for a time a vicious form of Sharia law, banning TV and alcohol, attacking shrines as the products of heresy, stoning adulterers, slicing off the hands of accused spies or petty thieves, whipping women who violated their ultra-conservative dress code, are relieved that someone has driven the brutes  out (or so it appears). I don’t doubt the reports that Hollande received a rapturous welcome in the Malian capital of Bamako, or that some Malians are praying for the forces of the former colonial power to remain forever.

Problems: Civilian Deaths, Enemy “Resilience,” a Corrupt Ally, the Tuareg Issue

But there have also been reports of French bombs killing civilians. AP reported “In the city of Konna, the first to be bombed, 11 Malians were killed, Mali presidential spokesman Ousmane Sy said. The town’s mayor, Sory Diakite, said the dead included three children who threw themselves into a river and drowned while trying to avoid the falling bombs.” Such events get little attention as the French, like the U.S. forces in Afghanistan, constantly refer to “surgical strikes” and insist all possible measures are taken to avoid civilian death. But if the war goes on, there will be more such episodes. And there will be “terrorist” resistance; the first suicide bombing occurred in Gao Feb. 8.

The French have expressed surprise at the “resilience” of the enemy, and the power of its arsenal largely plundered from the armories of Moammar Qaddafi. The triumphant press reports about French forces taking the towns of Diabaly, Timbuktu, Gao, Kidal and Kanno but fighting has continued and the “insurgents” taking light casualties may have merely withdrawn from the cities (as the Taliban did in 2001) and regrouped. (There are reports of militants removing their turbans and shaving their beards to avoid suspicion in some towns, and blending in with urban populations or taking refuge in villages. Others have fled the country.) On Feb. 6, French “Defense Minister” Jean-Yves Le Drian stated his forces had clashed with “extremists firing rocket launchers” outside Gao.

On Feb. 8 AP reported that “French troops are in Tessalit,” a town near the Algerian border. “’They control the entrance to the town, as well as the administrative buildings,’ said Maiga [a local offical].” But it is not clear that any of these cities have really been cleared of the Islamists targeted by the French, or that the victory will be won so easily. Still, Le Drian suggests that with “mission accomplished” his 4000 troops may begin withdrawing in March, leaving the Malian army and a coalition of UN-backed African forces responsibility for “stabilizing” the north.

(Days after France launched its unannounced invasion, Niger, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Nigeria agreed to send soldiers in support of the mission and specifically to support the Malian military versus Islamists. Canada and Russia followed by the U.S. offered to transport African troops. Chad subsequently joined and a Chadian force of 1000 headed by the president’s son now fighting alongside the French near the Algerian border. About 7000 African forces are now committed to the mission.)

But what the mainstream press is largely leaving out is the fact that the fundamental conflict in Mali is not between al-Qaeda-linked terrorists and the hapless people of the north whose towns were seized by Islamists last summer, or even between the Malian government and the Islamists. It’s the conflict between the Tuareg independence movement, which has pushed for a republic of Aazawad in the north for decades,  and the government in Bamako. That government at present is headed by a military junta. The soldiers in power now overthrew the elected president, Amadou Toumani Toure, last May, charging him with failure to suppress the Tuareg rebellion.

France has aligned itself with this army, now divided into supporters and opponents of the former leader. On the same day as the Gao suicide bombing AP reported that “in the capital Bamako, far to the south, soldiers from a unit allied with the leader of last year’s military coup in Mali stormed the camp of the Red Beret presidential guard Friday morning, and at least one person was killed and five were wounded, witnesses said. The bloodshed underscores that Mali’s military is in disarray and in poor shape to confront without outside help the well-armed Islamists, many of whom have combat experience.” The Red Berets are loyal to the ousted president Touré.

The army is dominated by Mandé peoples, especially the Bambara and Malinke, dark-skinned Nilo-Saharan peoples speaking a language in the Niger-Congo family with an historical animosity towards the Tuaregs who while only around 10 percent of the Malian population concentrated in the vast north, in the Texas-sized region they call Azawad. The latter are a relatively light-skinned Afro-Asiatic people speaking a Berber language. These people, are historically nomads who traded throughout the central and western Sahara, delivering gold, salt, cloth and slaves via camel caravan routes extending from the Mediterranean coast to such fabled cities as Timbuktu. Their past involvement in the slave trade has produced lingering animosity among their black compatriots. (But as noted below, the French colonialists were up to their ears in the slave trade.) During the great famine in 1984 many Tuaregs relocated to Libya, another multi-ethnic country with a large Tuareg minority, and were recruited into Qaddafi’s army.

The Tuareg feel they experience discrimination in Malian society “à cause de la peau claire” (“on account of our light skin”) as one man told Afua Hirsch of the Guardian last July. Many feel that the north has been neglected in state investment in education and infrastructure, and that the Tuareg have been unfairly taxed. They note that the borders of Mali were arbitrarily established by European colonists, denying the Tuaregs (whose homeland straddles the borders of Niger, Mali, Libya, Algeria and Burkina Faso) their own state. In this they resemble the Kurds; that is, they have legitimate historical grievances and arguments for autonomy or independence. The armed struggle for an independent Awazad has gone on for decades and there were two uprisings during the nineties leading to (abortive) peace agreements and promises of greater local autonomy, never fulfilled.

The Chickens Come Home to Roost…from Libya

This then is the “fundamental contradiction” in Mali leading to armed violence. The recent arrival of al-Qaeda-linked Islamists is a secondary matter. It is the chickens coming home to roost following the NATO-U.S. bombing of Libya, ostensibly to protect the Libyan people from a bloodbath but really designed to kill Qaddafi and establish a more reliably pro-western regime. French president Nicolas Sarkowzy promoted that effort, brought the British prime minister on board, and pressured the U.S. to “lead from behind” in toppling Qaddafi and empowering a welter of disunited forces including al-Qaeda linked groups.

The chickens came home to roost for the U.S. in the attack on the Benghazi consulate, which showed that it’s just not that easy to establish imperialist control over countries with political, social and religious dynamics you can’t control and don’t understand.  The chickens came home for the French when the Tuaregs who had been in Libya, in the service of Qaddafi’s army or involved in the opposition, were obliged to flee following his fall. They did so either because they were associated by many in Libya with the fallen leader, or on the grounds of racism. (While the Tuaregs distinguish themselves from black Africans, they are not necessarily seen differently by those who’ve attacked and detained tens of thousands of blacks in Libya.)

According to El-Khabar, an Algerian newspaper, in that month: “Sources inside the Libyan city of Ghadames told El-Khabar that the Tuareg tribes have been subjected to ethnic cleansing for the past eight months. The Ghadames tribe, which is backed by forces affiliated with the National Transitional Council, is allegedly carrying out these acts. The latter burned and destroyed hostels and stables belonging to the Tuareg tribe and expelled them from the city, forcing them to flee into Algeria. According to the escapees, many Tuareg members were subjected to ‘illegal’ detention in secret locations under inhumane conditions. They added that members of the Ghadames tribes are searching for Tuareg members everywhere, even in hospitals, to kill and torture them. They have also recently arrested a large number of them, including women.”

That is to say, they were forced out of Libya, and returning home through Algeria heavily armed, were able to establish control of much of the north last May Or at least they were able to take part in a complicated struggle for power in Azawad. (Did Sarkozy, Cameron, Berlusconi and Obama ever think, as they were imposing regime change on Libya, that they would be destabilizing the whole region? Is this another example of Donald Rumsfeld’s “creative destruction,” inflicted deliberately?)

It’s Complicated

The Tuarags fighting the Malian regime are currently divided into several groups. The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), founded in October 2011, describes itself as follows on its official website:

The MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) would like to make it clear that within the MNLA military command there are: old rebels from the uprisings of the 1990s (MFUA – Movements of the United Fronts of Azawad), of 2006 (MTNM – The Tuareg Movement of Northern Mali, which was lead by the late Ibrahim Ag Bahanga), fighters who have returned from Libya but who mostly participated in the liberation of that country, volunteers from the various ethnicities of northern Mali (Tuareg, Songhai, Peul and Moor) and both soldiers and officers who have deserted from the Malian army.

Since last December this group has indicated willingness to hold peace talks with the government. It has not opposed the French deployment. Indeed, a movement spokesman, Moussa Ag Assarid declares,  “We’re ready to help, we are already involved in the fight against terrorism.” But they keep their eyes on the prize. “Our goal is to liberate our lands from Malian occupation,” declares Moussa Ag Acharatoumane, a movement spokesmen in France.

The New York Times claims this group “started the war [with the Malian government] in January 2012” having reported on Feb. 5, 2012 that “Hundreds of Tuareg rebels, heavily armed courtesy of Colonel Qaddafi’s extensive arsenal, have stormed towns in Mali’s northern desert in recent weeks, in one of the most significant regional shock waves to emanate directly from the colonel’s fall.”

The organization includes Songhai, Fula (Peul), and Arabs as well as Tuaregs, and Tuaregs returning from Libya who either served in the Libyan army or “participated in the liberation of that country” (meaning that they either fought for Qaddafi, sided with some faction of the movement that overthrew Gaddafi, or both). It is considered a relatively secular organization, and opposed to al-Qaeda.

Ansar Dine (“Helpers of Religion’) on the other hand, active since March 2012, is a Tuareg movement bent on imposing Sharia law on all of Mali. It has been accused of ties to al-Qaeda through the franchise called Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), largely on the basis of the fact that its leader Iyad Ag Ghaly is a cousin of Hamada Ag Hama, who heads AQIM. It has shown no interest in a global jihad but rather promotes a regional agenda. It joined MNLA in establishing control over the cities of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu last spring.

This group has recently split, with one faction forming the Islamic Movement for the Azawad. The spokesman for the new movement, Alghabass Ag Intallah, told AP January 24 that he and his fighters had split off “so that we can be in control of our own fate.” He added, “We are not terrorists. We are ready to negotiate,” presumably with the invading French as well as the Malian junta. “We are neither AQIM or MUJAO. We are a group of people from the north of Mali who have a set of grievances that date back at least 50 years.”

MUJAO refers to the Movement for the Unity and Jihad in West Africa, a AQIM offshoot that—as I understand it— shares the latter’s jihadist ideology but wants to branch out beyond the Maghreb (which does not include Mali). It strongly opposes an independent state of Azawad and has hoped in the past to march on Bamako. MUJAO has worked with Ansar Dine and clashed with the MNLA. It briefly took the town of Diabaly, in central Mali, after the murder of 16 clerics by Malian forces produced local outrage last September. But it was driven out by French and Malian forces. It was also driven out of Gao, a major city (pop. 90,000) on the Niger River, which had been taken by MNLA last March but then captured by MUJAO a month later after a battle. (As of today, French and Malian forces claim to have driven out MUJAO and taken control of Gao. But the French press reports that they may only control the area around the airport, an important bridge, and a few neighborhoods in the city.)

There is also a group established by Algerian Tuareg Moktar Belmoktar, a one-eyed veteran of the Afghan anti-Soviet jihad turned professional kidnapper and cigarette smuggler. Once active in the Salafist movement in Algeria, he was expelled from AQIM last year and according to BBC “stripped…of his title as ‘emir of the Sahel, as a result of in-fighting,” This group is variously referred to as the Signed-in-Blood Battalion, the Masked Men Brigade and the Khaled Abu al-Abbas Brigade.

Based in Mali, Belmokhtar is known to Algerian intelligence as “Mr. Marlboro” (which is somewhat ironic, since Al-Qaeda is famous from Bosnia to Pakistan for forbidding and harshly punishing tobacco smoking). He is thought to be behind the seizure of the Amenas gas facility in Algeria last month in protest of the French invasion of Mali. The Signatories in Blood claimed responsibility for that attack, although it was widely blamed on “an al-Qaeda affiliate.” AP reports that some in Gao have linked the suicide bomber of Feb. 8 to Belmokhtar.

So the military-political forces in Awazad include  (principally) Tuareg separatists seeking independence or autonomy, who have distanced themselves from AQIM and MUJAO; Tuareg separatists aligned to varying degrees with branches of al-Qaeda; Mali government forces accused of atrocities, answering to an illegitimate government, incapable of engaging the sparse Tuareg forces without outside help;  and French neocolonial troops abetted by the the U.S. Russia, Canada and thousands of African troops.

A Threat Requiring “Re-conquest”?

It would not appear that this conflict played out in the Sahara constitutes an existential threat to France, but the Foreign Ministry has proclaimed the Islamists in North Africa as France’s biggest national security threat. You might think that, given how the threat is largely of France’s making as the result of the attack on Libya, cooler heads in Paris might have concluded that Mali were better left to its peoples to deal with their own issues. But no, Le  Drian stated soon after the French began invading on January 11, “the goal” of French forces “is the total re-conquest of Mali.”

Re-conquest? From whom, and on whose behalf?  The peoples of Azawad?  The hated Malian military led by a weak junta?

The last “conquest” of Mali and its consequences is described effectively in an article in (of all places) The International Business Times. It’s worth quoting at length:

“By 1892, France took control of Mali, subsequently naming a civilian governor of what was then called the ‘French Sudan’ — it took the cities of Timbuktu in 1894 and Gao in 1898, at which point the French military crushed any resistance to colonialism in the region.

At that time, Mali’s geography included parts of contemporary Mauritania, Senegal, Niger and Burkina Faso. The French authorities forced African laborers to produce goods such as peanuts and cotton, which were transported to the coast by railways and roads, while the vast interior remained destitute and undeveloped. Generally speaking, Paris ruled from a distance, giving little importance or attention to a territory that was largely uninhabitable and lacking in natural resources. However, in the 1930s, in an effort to build up the local cotton industry to feed French textiles, France established an irrigation program that flooded areas (thereby displacing Malian villages) of the Niger River Valley, using labor that amounted to plantation slavery. . .

Similar to the British call for the assumption of “White Man’s Burden” to defend its huge empire, French imperialists called their program “mission civilisatrice” (a civilizing mission). Indeed, in 1886, well into France’s expansionary period in West Africa, a French statesman named Jules Ferry spoke for many when he proudly said: “The higher races have a right over the lower races, they have a duty to civilize the inferior races.” As a result, French is now the dominant language in Mali and across West Africa, while Christianity pervades the region.

However, the French did not completely abolish slavery in West Africa until 1905 — in fact, just prior to emancipation, up to 3.5 million people, about one-third of the region’s population, were slaves. Even after abolition, slavery remained in force in Mali, given that the practice stretched back into antiquity, long before the arrival of the Europeans. According to the Anti-Slavery Society, some freed slaves from Mali enlisted in the French Army and fought for the Republic in the First World War. Ten-thousand Malians died in the trenches for France in WWI.”

Few people in Mali want to be re-conquered by France in order to  revisit this colonial experience. But Reuters reports, “Many ordinary Malians deeply resent the MNLA for opening the door to the Islamists’ seizure of the north” by driving out the Malian army last year. Many in the army want to re-conquer Azawad in order to put the northerners in their place.

The regime is beholden to France and indeed has acquired new legitimacy through its partnership with the French in the campaign to drive the Islamists, generally unpopular with all ethnic groups. So there are the makings here for an alliance of outsiders (including armies from French-allied nations like Chad) and the Mali junta, versus Tuareg nationalism.

The Hollande administration apparently fears getting bogged down in a long commitment, following the expulsion of al-Dine and MUJAO from Azawad cities. Hence optimistic predictions of a withdrawal of forces beginning March, and the handover of responsibility to an all-African force funded by the UN and assisted by the U.S. The French could claim that they went in and liberated both the Libyans and Malians in rapid succession, and that they did not leave such matters to the Americans; rather they took leadership, as a major power, with deep connections to the Arab world and especially North Africa. (Remember the Algerian War of 1954 to 1952, when France killed perhaps a million Algerians to cling to its right to administer that country before finally withdrawing in defeat, as it had from Vietnam after Dienbienphu? Such is the real sentimental connection between France and the region.)

 A Response Requiring “Years, Even Decades”

The British projection is somewhat different. The British, who with the U.S. are actively assisting the French through communications and transport at the very least, assume there will have to be a long commitment in Mali.

Prime Minister David Cameron (sounding very much like Dick Cheney in 2001), sees a “global threat [that] will require a global response.” “ It will require, he adds, “a response that is about years, even decades, rather than months. It requires a response that is patient and painstaking, that is tough but also intelligent, but above all has an absolutely iron resolve and that is what we will deliver over these coming years.”

“The world needs to come together to deal with this threat” says Cameron. “What we face is an extremist, Islamist, al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group. It wants to destroy our way of life, it believes in killing as many people as it can. Just as we had to deal with that in Pakistan and in Afghanistan, so the world needs to come together to deal with this threat in North Africa.”  He cannot be referring to the MNLA, or the Islamic Movement for the Azawad, who are not “al-Qaeda-linked” any more than  many miscellaneous groups and people targeted by western powers and tarred with that brush for propagandistic convenience have been al-Qaeda linked. And there seems little indication they want to destroy Cameron’s way of life (although they might be appalled by some aspects of it). These Tuareg nationalists are seeking a better deal in their homeland, not integration into a Caliphate headed by Ayman al-Zawahiri intent on confronting the west.

The MUJAO and AQIM presence in Mali has perhaps been overstated, and the specifically Tuareg groups al-Dine and the Signed-in Blood Battalion are unlikely to cooperate very long or closely with these groups. The Tuaregs, after all, practice a very distinctive form of Islam. Women are not veiled (although men are, from age 25). Relations between the sexes are comparatively relaxed, and observance of Islamic law relatively lax. Pre-Islamic beliefs and observances regarding djinn (genies), magic and talismans remain strong. Tuareg society is not as receptive to Islamic fundamentalism of the al-Qaeda variety as (say) Pashtun society in Afghanistan.

In any case, while the French are saying they plan to leave, Cameron is talking about years, even decades of western intervention (in self-defense)! And the U.S. is so far merely expressing admiration of the French achievement and committing modest aid to the re-conquest project. This might become far more substantial. As though preparing for a war to last decades, Washington has negotiated an agreement with Niger “for U.S. drones to be stationed on its territory to improve intelligence on al Qaeda-linked Islamic fighters in northern Mali,” Reuters reported Jan. 29.

But again: the key issue is not al-Qaeda-linked fighters but a separatist movement that has nothing to do with international terrorism.

The French have pointedly avoided taking sides in the Tuareg struggle for independence or autonomy, although they urge peace talks between the sides. This may be because they believe they and their Malian allies must rely upon the Tuaregs’ extraordinary desert navigational skills and knowledge to suppress the groups all seek to drive out. The MNLA, according to Pierre Boilley, director of the Paris-based CEMAF (Centre d’Études des Mondes Africains), “are important allies for Bamako,” and the war against al-Qaeda-linked forces is doomed to failure without them. The French have historically depicted the Tuaregs in an admiring if not heroic light. They appear to have cooperated with the MNLA in capturing control of Gao from MUJAO and al-Dine last month. But to posit the MNLA as “important allies” of a regime they’ve been fighting, and which views them as rebels to be crushed, seems optimistic.

Reuters quotes a source in the Malian military “still smarting from their defeat in last year’s northern Tuareg rebellion,  as saying, “The MNLA are playing PR … they might go and occupy those places where there is nobody and pretend they are militarily present, but they don’t represent anything for us.” According to Jeremy Keenan, a British anthropologist and expert on the Tuaregs. “There will never, ever be a solution [of Islamist threats in northern Mali] if you don’t talk to the Tuaregs – but… [y]ou have a huge part of the rest of Mali not wanting to have anything to do with the Tuaregs —the Tuareg problem has to be resolved and it goes wider than Mali.”

It’s not as though Paris can wave a magic wand and create a grand coalition of West African nations, Bamako, and the MNLA against the Islamists without confronting some major problems.

What’s the Point?

Analysts advance different reasons for the French action. There’s the official explanation, the typical vague mix of promoting human rights, reestablishing a democratic government, defeating “al-Qaeda” in the broadest sense and of course “preventing the area becoming a base for attacks on the west.”  It is echoed by Morgan Roach, “research analyst” with the Heritage Foundation. “The extremists’ ultimate goal is to establish Mali as an Islamic state,” she declares. “It would provide them with a base to not only carry out and recruit, but train as well as launch international terrorist attacks. [The French] have an interest in Mali, and they have colonial ties to Mali. They consider this their backyard and a threat to France and Europe.” (As though colonial “ties” and “interests,” and a perception of a region as their “backyard” ever justifies military aggression!)

Some point to the boost in the polls the (so far) successful mission has brought to Hollande (as the Libyan bombing brought to his predecessor Sarkozy). But this is too simplistic and does not explain the support Hollande receives from the U.S., Canada, Russia and Europe generally.

Some think it’s an effort to re-colonize Mali, and emphasize the issue of uranium.  The Black News Examiner suggests that the “real reason behind France’s brutal invasion of Mali, which has killed hundreds and displaced an estimated 800,000, is to gain control of its vast uranium reserves as well as its substantial deposits of gold, diamonds and oil.” Al-Jazeera’s May Ling Welsh, interviewed on Democracy Now!, notes that 75% of France’s electric energy is produced by nuclear power plants that use uranium purchased from Niger, Mali’s neighbor to the east, and that Mali has extensive untapped uranium resources as well. (Remember the Niger uranium forgeries used by the Bush administration to allege that Saddam Hussein was illegally purchasing uranium from Niger?) This uranium is cheap;

Niger in one of the three poorest countries in the world and so the mining labor costs are far lower than  they are in the largest producers, such as Canada and Australia. China is aggressively seeking uranium exploration concessions in Africa, and its political and economic clout are growing.

Welsh also suggests that the French want to contain Tuareg nationalism and separatism throughout the region. The region rich in uranium lies in a Tuareg-dominated region straddling the two countries; the nomads travel back and forth indifferent to the colonial border. She points out that when a Tuareg rebellion occurs in either of the states, it tends to spread to the other. The prospect of an independent Tuareg state, especially one under Islamist influence, could threaten the security of France’s uranium supply. (Although would it not make sense that any regime in control of this resource would want to continue to sell it)? One should not pooh-pooh these arguments.

The real reasons will become clearer over time. For the time being the French mission in Mali seems to replicate those of the U.S. in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the joint assault on Libya. The authors of the project seem no more aware of nor concerned about ethnic and sectarian issues than the architects of the earlier aggressions. The targeted parties have not been destroyed but retreated strategically, dispersed and regrouped. “Core” al-Qaeda, which had relocated from Afghanistan to Pakistan, is all but gone. But spin-offs and copy-cat groups have popped up in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Algeria, Libya, Mali and elsewhere. Some of those driven out of Mali have reportedly escaped to Darfur (western Sudan) through Niger and Chad. Can we expect the French Foreign Legion in Sudan next year?

The U.S. was clueless about the Pashtuns: their Pashtunwali code of hospitality which required their tolerance for Osama bin Laden (hero of the war against the Soviets when he was working with the CIA); their refusal to accept the colonial boundary between Afghanistan and Pakistan (the “Durand Line” of 1893); most of all their long history back to the days of Alexander the Great of resisting foreign domination.  Washington perhaps did not realize that Taliban militants could easily retreat across the border, find sanctuary, inspire the formation of similar local groups, and establish clandestine bases. It probably did not realize that, however intimidated by U.S. warnings that they would be “bombed back to the Stone Age” the Pakistanis could not effectively suppress pro-Taliban sentiment or activities in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas that had never really been under Islamabad’s control and where the army had never been deployed before 2001 (when it entered on U.S. orders).

The U.S. was clueless too about the religious and ethnic differences in Iraq, which thanks to its invasion and occupation is now under Shiite rule, with Sunnis increasingly marginalized and Kurds heading towards succession. The George W. Bush administration perhaps did not realize that by smashing the secular but Sunni-based Baathist Party of Saddam, it opened the floodgates to an Iraqi al-Qaeda franchise, drawing recruits from Yemen, Jordan, Libya and elsewhere. France perhaps did not realize that when it and its partners destroyed the Qaddafi regime—which whatever else it had been, was a vital ally against al-Qaeda—it opened the door for Islamism in Libya and its spread to Mali.

Given this history, it seems the French re-conquest of Mali will produce unpredicted new disasters. As Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics,  suggests: “Regardless of the intentions of the French leadership today, their military intervention in Mali will be seen through France’s colonial legacy in West and North Africa, a bloody legacy. France is not responsible for producing the jihadis roaming the wadis and deserts, and mountains of North and West Africa, but its military intervention may fuel anti-hegemonic and anti-colonial grievances that power the jihadist caravan. There is a real danger that Western boots on the ground in Muslim societies would produce counterproductive results, as the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq clearly show.”

When David Cameron talks about “years, even decades” of “response” to “global threats,” he is talking about threats that are largely of the western imperialists’ own making.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at:

Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: