It was supposed to be over. The conflict in Mali, which was said to be on the verge of resolution, has devolved into an old fashioned guerrilla war. With French and Malian forces battling Ansar al-Dine rebels around the eastern city of Gao, François Hollande’s triumphal visit to the country, to declare victory, recalls George W. Bush’s mission accomplished event aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, in 2003. A three-year-long insurgency, claiming upwards of 150, 000 lives, immediately followed.
When French military involvement in Mali began with an aerial campaign in mid-January, Glenn Greenwald wrote a piece in The Guardian, in which he argued that the situation in Mali could be seen as part of a larger conflict between Western powers and the Islamic world:
“As French war planes bomb Mali, there is one simple statistic that provides the key context: this west African nation of 15 million people is the eighth country in which western powers – over the last four years alone – have bombed and killed Muslims – after Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and the Philippines (that does not count the numerous lethal tyrannies propped up by the west in that region). For obvious reasons, the rhetoric that the west is not at war with the Islamic world grows increasingly hollow with each new expansion of this militarism.”
Greenwald, a prolific and trenchant critic of the brutality of Western imperialism, makes a valid point, but one that obscures a more complex history. To lump together the killing of Muslims by Western powers creates a false equivalence. On this logic, it is impossible to distinguish between the policy of assassination by drone in Pakistan, the occupation of Iraq, and French policy in Mali. Greenwald’s well-meaning criticism lacks historical specificity. Unfortunately, it also engages in a particularly unhelpful species of criticism, in which outrage at a broader context of wrong substitutes for serious analysis.
There is an old Irish proverb, “history cannot be destroyed by time,” the truth of which is aptly demonstrated by recent events in Mali, and by the uninformed response of the Western media to them. The deep roots of the conflict lie in the architecture of French West Africa, and of the political structures that were created in the era of decolonization. As was so often the case in European colonial areas in Africa, Mali was created as an amalgam, an outgrowth of the political and logistical needs of the French colonizers that took little notice of previously existing political structures.
Mali, as it is exists today, comprises the central and eastern portions of the pre-European Malian Empire, and a massive triangular swath of the Sahara, whose colonial origins are clearly illustrated by the linearity of the borders with Algeria and Mauritania. Although Mali had been a center of Islamic intellectual culture in West Africa, it was something of backwater in French colonial possessions. The parsing of this vast region by French colonial authorities after 1880 created a situation in which the nomadic Tuareg people were split between what would become the post-colonial states of Mali and Niger (with smaller populations in at least five other countries.)
The heartland of the present conflict in Mali is the vast, semi-arid biogeographic region of the Sahel. The Malian Sahel, stretching for hundreds of kilometers beyond the fertile regions along the Niger River, has persistently lagged in terms of economic development in the era since decolonization. Lacking exploitable natural resources, in recent years it has more been the subject of attentions by Western NGOs seeking to address the dangers of food insecurity. It is this lack development that lies at the root of Tuareg dissatisfaction with the Malian state. This discontent has synergized in the last 18 months with the flow of Islamist fighters and materiel flowing southward out of the wreckage of Libya. The consequence has been the rise of a radical Islamist insurgency among the Tuaregs, who traditionally have practiced the same moderate variety of Islam that is common in the rest of the country.
In its historical and contemporary dimensions, the situation in Mali is highly complex. The French were apparently asked for assistance by the Malian government, which itself only achieved power in the country via a coup (in March of last year) which was itself partly a result of the situation of instability caused by the Tuareg insurgency. Both the insurgents and the Malian army have been plausibly accused of atrocities. As the insurgents moved south into the cities along the Niger, accounts began to surface of the imposition of Sharia law, of public executions and cutting of limbs, and of the banning of music. Stories about the brutality and indiscipline of the Malian army predated the arrival of the French. The retaking of much of the north and east of the country has occasioned numerous cases of summary execution of captured rebels or suspected sympathizers.
The situation that has emerged is the classic quandary of liberal intervention. On the one hand, there is the threat from a radical Islamism that, although its partisans comprise only a miniscule fraction of the community of practicing Muslims, is nonetheless well-armed, aggressive, and imbued with an ideology of war against the encroachments of Western culture. On the other, we have the states of the West whose history as imperialists and colonizers of the region in question has not been worked through and refuses to disappear. Among people on the left there is a justified skepticism about invocations of human wellbeing as a justification for military intervention. The media campaign to justify the launching of the Second Gulf War provided myriad examples of the cynical appropriation of the language of humanitarianism in ways grimly reminiscent of the era of the Cold War.
In an essay written in the Spring of 1940, George Orwell wrote of the conundrum faced by people on the left who wished to oppose Hitler but were, at the same time, conscious of problematic quality of pious motives expressed by those in whose name the European imperial project had been carried out. Orwell wrote, “If I side with Britain and France, it is because I would sooner side with the older imperialisms…than with the new ones which are completely sure of themselves and therefore completely merciless. Only, for Heaven’s sake let us not pretend that we go into this war with clean hands. It is only while we cling to the consciousness that our hands are not clean that we retain the right to defend ourselves.” The dynamic of polarization between radical Islamism and the neo-imperialist West leaves those on the left in a similar position.
Irrespective of the efforts to propagandists of the far right in Europe and North America to popularize such terms as “Islamo-fascism,” the association of Islamism with Hitlerism is merely an attempt to give a dog a bad name. But the assertion of the moral impurity of the Western side does not in any substantive way respond to the danger presented by Malian Islamist groups like Ansar al-Dine. Critics like Mr. Greenwald quite rightly point to the dirtiness of Western hands. It is the way of neo-imperialist states to act according to the dictates of economics and power. If the possibility that one could have any faith in the higher motives of such imperialist states has been foreclosed, it is nonetheless the case that merely criticize those states (as we for the moment retain the capacity to do) can wholly substitute for the application of force to resolve certain kinds of crises.
The long term solution for Mali involves the building of representative and responsive governmental institutions and substantive engagement with the economic and political problems of the Sahel. This is a difficult process, one which can hardly take place in the face of a heavily armed and religiously radicalized insurgency. The left too faces a challenge: to find an analysis which permits opposition to religious zealotry while at the same time not blithely accepting the specious arguments that led the West into Iraq. This is the quandry we are faced with today, in attempting to formulate a progressive response to France’s war in Mali.