burn - Africa's Afghanistan By
LONDON - One's got to love
the sound of a Frenchman's Mirage 2000 fighter jet
in the morning. Smells like... a delicious
neo-colonial breakfast in Hollandaise sauce. Make
it quagmire sauce.
Apparently, it's a
no-brainer. Mali holds 15.8 million people - with
a per capita gross domestic product of only around
US$1,000 a year and average life expectancy of
only 51 years - in a territory twice the size of
France (per capital GDP $35,000 and upwards). Now
almost two-thirds of this territory is occupied by
heavily weaponized Islamist outfits. What next?
Bomb, baby, bomb.
So welcome to the latest
African war; Chad-based French Mirages and Gazelle
helicopters, plus a smatter of France-based
Rafales bombing evil Islamist
jihadis in northern Mali. Business is good; French
president Francois Hollande spent this past
Tuesday in Abu Dhabi clinching the sale of up to
60 Rafales to that Gulf paragon of democracy, the
United Arab Emirates (UAE).
wimpy Hollande - now enjoying his "resolute",
"determined", tough guy image reconversion - has
cleverly sold all this as incinerating Islamists
in the savannah before they take a one-way
Bamako-Paris flight to bomb the Eiffel Tower.
French Special Forces have been on the
ground in Mali since early 2012.
Tuareg-led NMLA (National Movement for the
Liberation of Azawad), via one of its leaders, now
says it's "ready to help" the former colonial
power, billing itself as more knowledgeable about
the culture and the terrain than future
intervening forces from the CEDEAO (the acronym in
French for the Economic Community of Western
Salafi-jihadis in Mali
have got a huge problem: they chose the wrong
battlefield. If this was Syria, they would have
been showered by now with weapons, logistical
bases, a London-based "observatory", hours of
YouTube videos and all-out diplomatic support by
the usual suspects of US, Britain, Turkey, the
Gulf petromonarchies and - oui, monsieur - France
Instead, they were slammed by the
UN Security Council - faster than a collection of
Marvel heroes - duly authorizing a war against
them. Their West African neighbors - part of the
ECOWAS regional bloc - were given a deadline (late
November) to come up with a war plan. This being
Africa, nothing happened - and the Islamists kept
advancing until a week ago Paris decided to apply
some Hollandaise sauce.
Not even a
football stadium filled with the best West African
shamans can conjure a bunch of disparate - and
impoverished - countries to organize an
intervening army in short notice, even if the
adventure will be fully paid by the West just like
the Uganda-led army fighting al-Shabaab in
To top it all, this is no
cakewalk. The Salafi-jihadis are flush, courtesy
of booming cocaine smuggling from South America to
Europe via Mali, plus human trafficking. According
to the UN Office of Drugs Control, 60% of Europe's
cocaine transits Mali. At Paris street prices,
that is worth over $11 billion.
Turbulence ahead General Carter
Ham, the commander of the Pentagon's AFRICOM, has
been warning about a major crisis for months. Talk
about a self-fulfilling prophecy. But what's
really going on in what the New York Times
quaintly describes as those "vast and turbulent
stretches of the Sahara"?
It all started
with a military coup in March 2012, only one month
before Mali would hold a presidential election,
ousting then president Amadou Toumani Toure. The
coup plotters justified it as a response to the
government's incompetence in fighting the Tuareg.
The coup leader was one Captain Amadou
Haya Sanogo, who happened to have been very cozy
with the Pentagon; that included his four-month
infantry officer basic training course in Fort
Benning, Georgia, in 2010. Essentially, Sanogo was
also groomed by AFRICOM, under a regional scheme
mixing the State Department's Trans Sahara Counter
Terrorism Partnership program and the Pentagon's
Operation Enduring Freedom. It goes without saying
that in all this "freedom" business Mali has been
the proverbial "steady ally" - as in
counterterrorism partner - fighting (at least in
thesis) al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Over the last few years, Washington's game
has elevated flip-flopping to high art. During the
second George W Bush administration, Special
Forces were very active side by side with the
Tuaregs and the Algerians. During the first Obama
administration, they started backing the Mali
government against the Tuareg.
unsuspecting public may pore over Rupert Murdoch's
papers - for instance, The Times of London - and
its so-called defense correspondent will be
pontificating at will on Mali without ever talking
about blowback from the Libya war.
Gaddafi always supported the Tuaregs' independence
drive; since the 1960s the NMLA agenda has been to
liberate Azawad (North Mali) from the central
government in Bamako.
After the March 2012
coup, the NMLA seemed to be on top. They planted
their own flag on quite a few government
buildings, and on April 5 announced the creation
of a new, independent Tuareg country. The
"international community" spurned them, only for a
few months later to have the NMLA for all
practical purposes marginalized, even in their own
region, by three other - Islamist - groups; Ansar
ed-Dine ("Defenders of the Faith"); the Movement
for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO); and
al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Meet the players The NMLA is a
secular Tuareg movement, created in October 2011.
It claims that the liberation of Azawad will allow
better integration - and development - for all the
peoples in the region. Its hardcore fighters are
Tuaregs who were former members of Gaddafi's army.
But there are also rebels who had not laid down
their arms after the 2007-2008 Tuareg rebellion,
and some that defected from the Malian army. Those
who came back to Mali after Gaddafi was executed
by the NATO rebels in Libya carried plenty of
weapons. Yet most heavy weapons actually ended up
with the NATO rebels themselves, the Islamists
supported by the West.
AQIM is the
Northern African branch of al-Qaeda, pledging
allegiance to "The Doctor", Ayman al-Zawahiri. Its
two crucial characters are Abu Zaid and Mokhtar
Belmokhtar, former members of the ultra-hardcore
Algerian Islamist outfit Salafist Group for
Predication and Combat (SGPC). Belmokhtar was
already a jihadi in 1980s Afghanistan.
Zaid poses as a sort of North African "Geronimo",
aka Osama bin Laden, with the requisite black flag
and a strategically positioned Kalashnikov
featuring prominently in his videos. The
historical leader, though, is Belmokhtar. The
problem is that Belmokhtar, known by French
intelligence as "The Uncatchable", has recently
MUJAO fighters are all
former AQIM. In June 2012, MUJAO expelled the NMLA
and took over the city of Gao, when it immediately
applied the worst aspects of Sharia law. It's the
MUJAO base that has been bombed by the French
Rafales this week. One of its spokesmen has duly
threatened, "in the name of Allah", to respond by
attacking "the heart of France".
Ansar ed-Dine is an Islamist Tuareg outfit, set up
last year and directed by Iyad ag Ghali, a former
leader of the NMLA who exiled himself in Libya. He
turned to Salafism because of - inevitably -
Pakistani proselytizers let loose in Northern
Africa, then engaged in valuable face time with
plenty of AQIM emirs. It's interesting to note in
2007 Mali President Toure appointed Ghali as
consul in Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia. He was then
duly expelled in 2010 because he got too close to
Gimme 'a little more
terrorism' No one in the West is asking
why the Pentagon-friendly Sanogo's military coup
in the capital ended up with almost two-thirds of
Mali in the hands of Islamists who imposed
hardcore Sharia law in Azawad - especially in Gao,
Timbuktu and Kidal, a gruesome catalogue of
summary executions, amputations, stonings and the
destruction of holy shrines in Timbuktu. How come
the latest Tuareg rebellion ended up hijacked by a
few hundred hardcore Islamists? It's useless to
ask the question to US drones.
official "leading from behind" Obama 2.0
administration rhetoric is, in a sense,
futuristic; the French bombing "could rally
jihadis" around the world and lead to - what else
- attacks on the West. Once again the good ol'
Global War on Terror (GWOT) remains the serpent
biting its own tail.
There's no way to
understand Mali without examining what Algeria has
been up to. The Algerian newspaper El Khabar only
scratched the surface, noting that "from
categorically refusing an intervention - saying to
the people in the region it would be dangerous",
Algiers went to "open Algerian skies to the French
Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton was in Algeria last October, trying to
organize some semblance of an intervening West
African army. Hollande was there in December. Oh
yes, this gets juicier by the month.
let's turn to Professor Jeremy Keenan, from the
School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at
London University, and author of The Dark
Sahara (Pluto Press, 2009) and the upcoming
The Dying Sahara (Pluto Press, 2013).
Writing in the January edition of New
African, Keenan stresses, "Libya was the catalyst
of the Azawad rebellion, not its underlying cause.
Rather, the catastrophe now being played out in
Mali is the inevitable outcome of the way in which
the 'Global War on Terror' has been inserted into
the Sahara-Sahel by the US, in concert with
Algerian intelligence operatives, since 2002."
In a nutshell, Bush and the regime in
Algiers both needed, as Keenan points out, "a
little more terrorism" in the region. Algiers
wanted it as the means to get more high-tech
weapons. And Bush - or the neo-cons behind him -
wanted it to launch the Saharan front of the GWOT,
as in the militarization of Africa as the top
strategy to control more energy resources,
especially oil, thus wining the competition
against massive Chinese investment. This is the
underlying logic that led to the creation of
AFRICOM in 2008.
Washington and the Europeans duly used AQIM,
infiltrating its leadership to extract that
"little more terrorism". Meanwhile, Algerian
intelligence effectively configured the Tuaregs as
"terrorists"; the perfect pretext for Bush's
Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Initiative, as
well as the Pentagon's Operation Flintlock - a
trans-Sahara military exercise.
Tuaregs always scared the hell out of Algerians,
who could not even imagine the success of a Tuareg
nationalist movement in northern Mali. After all,
Algeria always viewed the whole region as its own
The Tuaregs - the indigenous
population of the central Sahara and the Sahel -
number up to 3 million. Over 800,000 live in Mali,
followed by Niger, with smaller concentrations in
Algeria, Burkina Faso and Libya. There have been
no less than five Tuareg rebellions in Mali since
independence in 1960, plus three others in Niger,
and a lot of turbulence in Algeria.
Keenan's analysis is absolutely correct in
identifying what happened all along 2012 as the
Algerians meticulously destroying the credibility
and the political drive of the NMLA. Follow the
money: both Ansar ed-Dine's Iyad ag Ghaly and
MUJAO's Sultan Ould Badi are very cozy with the
DRS, the Algerian intelligence agency. Both groups
in the beginning had only a few members.
Then came a tsunami of AQIM fighters.
That's the only explanation for why the NMLA was,
after only a few months, neutralized both
politically and militarily in their own backyard.
Round up the usual freedom
fighters Washington's "leading from behind"
position is illustrated by this State Department
conference. Essentially, the government in
Bamako asked for the French to get down and dirty.
And that's it.
Not really. Anyone
who thinks "bomb al-Qaeda" is all there is to Mali
must be living in Oz. To start with, using
hardcore Islamists to suffocate an indigenous
independence movement comes straight from the
historic CIA/Pentagon playbook.
Mali is crucial to AFRICOM and to the Pentagon's
overall MENA (Middle East-Northern Africa)
outlook. Months before 9/11 I had the privilege to
crisscross Mali on the road - and by the (Niger)
river - and hang out, especially in Mopti and
Timbuktu, with the awesome Tuaregs, who gave me a
crash course in Northwest Africa. I saw Wahhabi
and Pakistani preachers all over the place. I saw
the Tuaregs progressively squeezed out. I saw an
Afghanistan in the making. And it was not very
hard to follow the money sipping tea in the
Sahara. Mali borders Algeria, Mauritania, Burkina
Faso, Senegal, the Ivory Coast and Guinea. The
spectacular Inner Niger delta is in central Mali -
just south of the Sahara. Mali overflows with
gold, uranium, bauxite, iron, manganese, tin and
copper. And - Pipelineistan beckons! - there's
plenty of unexplored oil in northern Mali.
As early as February 2008, Vice Admiral
Robert T Moeller was saying
that AFRICOM's mission was to protect "the free
flow of natural resources from Africa to the
global market"; yes, he did make the crucial
connection to China, pronounced guilty of "
challenging US interests".
planes have been "observing" Mali, Mauritania and
the Sahara for months, in thesis looking for AQIM
fighters; the whole thing is overseen by US
Special Forces, part of the classified, code-named
Creek Sand operation, based in next-door Burkina
Faso. Forget about spotting any Americans; these
are - what else - contractors who do not wear
Last month, at Brown
University, General Carter Ham, AFRICOM's
commander, once more gave a big push to the
"mission to advance US security interests across
Africa". Now it's all about the - updated - US
National Security Strategy in Africa, signed by
Obama in June 2012. The (conveniently vague)
objectives of this strategy are to "strengthen
democratic institutions"; encourage "economic
growth, trade and investment"; "advance peace and
security"; and "promote opportunity and
In practice, it's Western
militarization (with Washington "leading from
behind") versus the ongoing Chinese
seduction/investment drive in Africa. In Mali, the
ideal Washington scenario would be a Sudan remix;
just like the recent partition of North and South
Sudan, which created an extra logistical headache
for Beijing, why not a partition of Mali to better
exploit its natural wealth? By the way, Mali was
known as Western Sudan until independence in 1960.
The beauty of it is that even with a
"multinational" proxy army about to get into the
action, it's the French who are pouring the lethal
Hollandaise sauce (nothing like an ex-colony "in
trouble" to whet the appetite of its former
masters). The Pentagon can always keep using its
discreet P-3 spy planes and Global Hawk drones
based in Europe, and later on transport West
African troops and give them aerial cover. But all
secret, and very hush hush.
has already reared its ugly head in record time,
even before the 1,400 (and counting) French boots
on the ground went into offense.
commando team (and not AQIM, as it's been
reported), led by who else but the "uncatchable"
Belmokhtar, hit a gas field in the middle of the
Algerian Sahara desert, over 1,000 km south of
Algiers but only 100 km from the Libyan border,
where they captured a bunch of Western (and some
Japanese) hostages; a rescue operation launched on
Wednesday by Algerian Special Forces was, to put
it mildly, a giant mess, with at least seven
foreign hostages and 23 Algerians so far confirmed
The gas field is being exploited
by BP, Statoil and Sonatrach. MUJAO has denounced
- what else - the new French "crusade" and the
fact that French fighter jets now own Algerian
As blowback goes, this is just
the hors d'oeuvres. And it won't be confined to
Mali. It will convulse Algeria and soon Niger, the
source of over a third of the uranium in French
nuclear power plants, and the whole Sahara-Sahel.
So this new, brewing mega-Afghanistan in
Africa will be good for French neoloconial
interests (even though Hollande insists this is
all about "peace"); good for AFRICOM; a boost for
those Jihadis Formerly Known as NATO Rebels; and
certainly good for the never-ending Global War on
Terror (GWOT), duly renamed "kinetic military
Django, unchained, would be
totally at home. As for the Oscar for Best Song,
it goes to the Bush-Obama continuum: There's no
business like terror business. With French
subtitles, bien sur.