Africa is no stranger to conflict. Nearly half of the continent’s fifty-four countries are home to an active conflict or are currently experiencing post-war tensions. So, when Ansar Dine Tuareg nationalists in Mali, crusading under the cooperative heading “The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad” (known by its French acronym MNLA), launched an insurrection against the Malian government in the northern province of Azawad on the 17th of January 2012, the outside world took little notice. Reactions from the US, EU, and numerous IGOs bore an archetypical aura of reticent apathy; all were confident the recent developments in Mali posed no existential threat to the security and predominant interests of western states.
Enter the 22nd of March 2012. Only a month ahead of scheduled elections, Malian president Amadou Toumani Touré was forcibly removed from power in a coup d’état held by US-trained-and-armed soldiers for his inadequate response to, and perceived mishandling of, the civil war. Despite far-reaching cries of illegitimacy and widespread condemnation by the regional organisation ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), mutineering soldiers, members of the self-proclaimed National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy and State (CNRDR), took control and officially suspended the constitution of Mali. The ensuing political instability and lack of leadership led to consecutive rebel victories in Mali’s northern cities of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu. MNLA rebels, now aided by the insurgent group al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), splinter jihadists Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA), and numerous military defectors (who took with them guns, trucks and valuable training), effectively overran state military forces. In the blink of an eye, a universally condemned international terrorist organisation had alarmingly managed to seize more than 300,000km of Northern Africa, “an area of the Sahara more than three times the size of Britain, complete with airports, military bases, arms dumps and training camps”.
By late summer 2012, large parts of northern Mali were subject to strict Sharia law enforced by AQIM and Tuareg rebels. Reports via foreign correspondents and social media, culminating with the release of Amnesty International’s report detailing widespread instances of gang rape, extrajudicial executions, and the use of child soldiers by MNLA insurgents, helped to elicit a tangible, purposive response from the outside world. Following requests from the African Union for foreign military intervention, the UN Security Council (UNSC) unanimously passed resolutions 2071 and 2085 authorising the deployment of an African-led international force of 3.000 to assist the Malian government in combatting Islamic insurgents for an initial period of one year; in other words, the west found itself once again at war with the very forces it had trained, funded, and armed. Insurgent victories persisted, however, and by early January of 2013, southern advances towards Mali’s capital city of Bamako were deemed serious enough by French president Françoise Hollande to warrant a last-minute decision to launch “Operation Serval”. Despite initial promises to curtail military spending and consciously moderate French influence in North Africa, the subsequent dispatch of 2.500 legionnaires to intervene on behalf of the not-especially-democratic government of Mali is an apparent indication that the French president’s foreign policy is increasingly showing signs of neo-colonial françafrique politics.
As the dominant narrative above would have it, UNSC resolution 2085 and French foreign intervention were both justified on the grounds of well-documented human rights violations and the threats international terrorism posed to the global community. While such an argument can assuredly be made, there is one crucial statistic often overlooked. Not including the numerous tyrannical dictatorships unofficially propped up, Mali marks the seventh country in four years alone – following Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya and Somalia – in which western powers have intervened with lethal force in a Muslim country. With each passing ‘humanitarian intervention’, rhetoric that the west is not at war with the Islamic world grows increasingly suspect. Nevertheless, despite the looming possibility of a protracted counterinsurgency “worse than Afghanistan”, the conflict in northern Mali offers vital lessons about western intervention that dominant narratives often ardently ignore.
First, the instability of the current regime and insurgent occupation of the north owes itself principally to NATO’s intervention in Libya. The Libyan war is frequently touted as a victory for liberal interventionism, yet the deposition of Muammar Gaddafi had far-reaching consequences unforeseen by western intelligence agencies. Heavily armed and battle-hardened Tuaregs who traditionally hail from such places as Timbuktu and Kidal comprised large portions of the former dictator’s army. When Libya was ‘liberated’, many Tuaregs returned home, unoccupied, with stockpiles of Gaddafi’s weapons, in effect laying the groundwork for further violent conflict.
Second, western intervention in Mali, further exacerbated by France’s long colonial history, is almost certain to compound feelings of anti-western sentiment, thereby evoking concordant feelings of sympathy towards AQIM and further propagating terrorism. Apparently aware of the risks and consequences, last month’s French bombing campaign was undertaken in the wake of “longstanding American warnings that a Western assault on the Islamist stronghold could rally jihadists around the world and prompt terrorist attacks as far away as Europe”, and offered no apparent, demonstrable regard for Amnesty International’s exhortation that military intervention would most likely result in an increased scale of human rights violations. Furthermore, the continuously mounting tolls of civilian casualties will almost inevitably quell any existing hopes for a peaceful end to the conflict in Mali.
Finally, the perverse and overly simplistic western narrative frequently used to justify foreign interventionism and status quo social relations distorts reality more than it describes this reality. France’s direct involvement in the present conflict in Mali demonstrates quite clearly that an intense fear of otherness, now successfully inscribed in western culture, means western governments and media are often guilty of the iniquitous ascription of the word “terrorist” to generate unwavering support for a specific cause, thereby perpetuating the so-called “war on terror”. As we have seen in Afghanistan and Iraq, the west has been unequivocally unsuccessful in attempts to impose a ‘new order’ on occupied countries. The present climate in Mali appears no different. Lessons and generalisations from the conflict in Mali must be absorbed and should perhaps be applied elsewhere, namely future cases of foreign intervention. The key lesson is to ostensibly recognise the fact that nobody is better at creating its own enemies than the US and its allies. Yet, if there is anything we can learn from history, it’s that we don’t learn from history.