"It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts." -- Charlie Marlow from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness
The vision that Conrad's character Marlow describes is of a French frigate firing broadsides into a vast African jungle, in essence, bombarding a continent. That image came to mind this week when French Mirages and helicopter gunships went into action against a motley army of Islamic insurgents in Mali.
That there is a surge of instability in that land- locked and largely desert country should hardly come as a surprise to the French: they and their allies are largely the cause.
And they were warned.
A little history. On Mar. 17, 2011, the UN Security Council approved Resolution 1973 to "protect civilians" in the Libyan civil war. Two days later, French Mirages began bombing runs on Muammar Gaddafi's armored forces and airfields, thus igniting direct intervention by Britain, along with Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Resolution 1973 did not authorize NATO and its allies to choose sides in the Libyan civil war, just to protect civilians, and many of those who signed on-including Russia and China-assumed that Security Council action would follow standard practice and begin by first exploring a political solution. But the only kind of "solution" that anti- Gaddafi alliance was interested in was the kind delivered by 500-lb. laser-guided bombs.
The day after the French attack, the African Union (AU) held an emergency session in Mauritania in an effort to stop the fighting. The AU was deeply worried that, if Libya collapsed without a post- Gaddafi plan in place, it might destabilize other countries in the region. They were particularly concerned that Libya's vast arms storehouse might end up fueling local wars in other parts of Africa.
However, no one in Washington, Paris or London paid the AU any mind, and seven months after France launched its attacks, Libya imploded into its current status as a failed state. Within two months, Tuaregs-armed with Gaddafi's weapons' cache-rose up and drove the corrupt and ineffectual Malian Army out of Northern Mali.
The Tuaregs are desert people, related to the Berbers that populate North Africa's Atlas Mountain range. They have fought four wars with the Malian government since the country was freed from France in 1960, and many Tuaregs want to form their own country, "Azawed." But the simmering discontent in northern Mali is not limited to the Tuaregs. Other ethnic groups are angered over the south's studied neglect of all the people in the country's north.
The Tuaregs are also currently fighting the French over uranium mining in Niger.
The Gaddafi government had long supported the Tuareg's demands for greater self-rule, and many Tuareg's served in the Libyan Army. Is anyone surprised that those Tuareg's looted Libyan arms depots when the central government collapsed? And, once they had all that fancy fire power that they would put it to use in an effort to carve out a country of their own?
The Tuareg's are nomads and had little interest in holding on to towns like Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal in northern Mali, and after smashing up the Mali Army, they went back into the desert. Into the vacuum created by the rout of the Malian Army flowed Islamic groups like Ansar-al-Din, al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad, and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). It is these latter organizations that the French are bombing, although reports are that civilians are getting caught in the crossfire.
The U.S. is also involved. According to Democracy Now, the Obama administration is moving French troops and equipment into the area, and deploying surveillance drones. And with the war spreading into Algeria, where almost two-dozen westerners, including several Americans, were kidnapped in retaliation for the French attacks in Mali, the U.S. may end up with boots on the ground.
Why are the French once again firing into a continent?
First, France has major investments in Niger and Mali. At bottom, this is about Francs (or Euros, as it may be). Some 75 percent of France's energy needs come from nuclear power, and a cheap source is its old colonial empire in the region (that besides Mali and Niger included Senegal, Mauritania, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Chad, Algeria, and the Central African Republic). Most of its nuclear fuel comes from Niger, but Al Jezeera reports that French uranium, oil and gold companies are lining up to develop northern Mali. Lest one think that this "development" is good for the locals, consider that, according to the UN's Human Development Index, Niger is the third poorest country in the world.
There are other issues as well.
Like a Napoleon complex.
"The French, like the Americans, judge presidents on their ability to make tough decisions, and there are few tougher ones than to send young men into battle," writes New York Times reporter Steve Erlanger in a story on French President Francois Hollande's decision to intervene in Mali. Titled "Hollande, long seen as soft, shifts image with firm stance" (which makes it sound vaguely like a Viagra ad), the article quotes "defense expert" Francois Heisbourg praising Hollande for acting "decisively" and "demonstrating that he can decide on matters of war and peace."
Actually, back in 1812 that "war and peace" thing came out rather badly for the French, though today's new model Grande Armee won't face much in the way of snow and ice in Mali. But Mali is almost twice the size of France-478,839 vs. 211,209 square miles-which is a lot of ground for Mirages to cover. In fact, the French warplanes are not even based in Mali, but neighboring Chad, some 1,300 miles away from their targets. That is a very long way to go for fighter-bombers and gives them very little time over the battlefield. Apparently the U.S. is considering helping out with in-air refueling, but, by any measure, the French forces will face considerable logistical obstacles. And while Mali's geography may not match the Russian steppes in winter, its fierce desert is daunting terrain.
Lastly, Hollande would like to take some pressure off his domestic situation. There is nothing like a war to make people forget about a stagnant economy, high unemployment, restive workers, and yet another round of austerity cuts.
But this war could get very nasty, and if you want the definition of a quagmire, try northern Mali. Instead of being intimidated by the French attacks, the insurgents successfully counterattacked and took the town of Diabaly in Central Mali. If Paris thought this was going to be a simple matter of scattering the wogs with a few bombing runs, one might suggest that Hollande revisit his country's past counterinsurgency campaigns, starting with Vietnam.
The Islamic groups appear to have little local support. Mali is a largely Islamic country, but not of the brand followed by the likes of Ansar al-Din or AQIM. But if you hand out lots of first-class fire power-which is exactly what the war to overthrow Gaddafi did-than you don't need a lot of support to cause a great deal of trouble.
The rebels are certainly not running into any opposition from the Mali Army, whose U.S.-trained leader, Captain Amadou Sanogo, overthrew his country's democratic government two months after the Tuaregs came storming out of the Sahara to take Timbuktu. Apparently a number of those U.S.- trained troops switched sides, taking their weapons and transport over to the insurgents.
There is evidence that the Mali Army may have provoked the Tuaregs in the first place. It appears that, rather than using the millions of dollars handed out by the U.S. over the past four years to fight "terrorism" in the region, the Mali Army used it to beat up on the Tuaregs. That is until the latter got an infusion of superior firepower after the fall of Gaddafi.
The French plan to put about 2,500 troops in Mali, but are relying on the Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS) to raise an army of 3,300. But the ECOWAS army will have to be transported to Mali and trained, and someone will have to foot the bill. That means that for the next several months it will be the French who hold down the fort, and that is going to cost a lot of Euros, of which France hardly has a surfeit.
The people of northern Mali have long standing grievances, but the current crisis was set off by the military intervention in Libya. And if you think Libya created monsters, just think of what will happen if the Assad government in Syria falls without a political roadmap in place. Yes, the French are very involved in Syria right now, a civil war that is increasingly pitting Sunnis against Shites and has already spread into Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq. Next to Syria's weapons hoards, Libya's firepower looks like a collection of muskets and bayonets.
Dominique de Villepin, the former prime minister of France and a sharp critic of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, recently wrote in the Journal du Dimanche: "These wars [like Mali] have never built a solid and democratic state. On the contrary, they favor separatism, failed states and the iron law of armed militias."
So what do Mali and the French intervention have to do with chickens?
They always come home to roost.
[Conn M. Hallinan is a columnist for Foreign Policy In Focus, "A Think Tank Without Walls, and an independent journalist. He holds a PhD in Anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley. He oversaw the journalism program at the University of California at Santa Cruz for 23 years, and won the UCSC Alumni Association’s Distinguished Teaching Award, as well as UCSC’s Innovations in Teaching Award, and Excellence in Teaching Award. He was also a college provost at UCSC, and retired in 2004. He is a winner of a Project Censored "Real News Award," and lives in Berkeley, California. For more of Conn Hallinan's essays visit Dispatches From the Edge. Meanwhile, his novels about the ancient Romans can be found at The Middle Empire Series.