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3 Circles of Blowback: Why Intervention in Mali Spells Disaster for Western Powers and Africa

The current crisis in Mali is a product of French colonialism, and their intervention will sadly create more blowback.

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In such a situation, religion, which might have played a positive role in shaping morally grounded public spheres and economies, became marginalised from governance, while slowly taking hold in a toxic form among many of the region's most marginalised peoples.

Supporting the wrong team

If France's colonial history created the structures in which the present crisis inevitably has unfolded, a more recent set of policies constitutes the second circle of blowback; namely, France's unreserved support for the Algerian government in its repression of the democratic transition that began in 1988 and was crushed in 1992. As is well known, rather than allow the Islamic Salvation Front - a Muslim Brotherhood-inspired group not that different in its roots and outlook than its Egyptian or Tunisian mainstream Islamist counterparts - to take power after its clear electoral victory in the first round of the 1991-92 parliamentary elections, the Algerian military cancelled the next round and began a crackdown that quickly exploded into a civil war between the military government and radical Islamist groups.

Faced with the choice of allowing a new, Islamist political actor take the reigns of power, France, joined by the US, chose to support the Algerian military, with whom it had retained close relations. In allying with an authoritarian, brutal and corrupt government the French, and the West more broadly, became party to a vicious conflict that saw the emergence of a dangerous terrorist group, the GIA (Armed Islamic Group), quite possibly  controlled at least in part by the military itself, and the subsequent bloody decade-long civil war that cost the lives of well over 100,000 civilians.

The GIA in turn was the  kernel out of which another group, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, and then al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghbrib, emerged. These groups focused their attention on North Africa for much of the last decade, but gradually moved more deeply into the Sahelian regions linking Algeria to Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Morocco.

Had France and the West not given unreserved support to the Algerian military, it is highly unlikely that these groups would have been created, never mind grown to their present position (a similar argument could of course be made about the main branch of al-Qaeda, which is so many ways was a direct product of unceasing US support for some of the most corrupt and brutal regimes in the world, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan).

As in so many other cases, France and its Western allies chose stability over democracy. In so doing it inevitably, if ironically, set the stage for the present chaos in which its troops are being forced to fight.

Supporting the wrong team... again

The third and most recent circle of blowback stems from France's longstanding support for Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Specifically, French President Nicolas Sarkozy offered strong support for Ben Ali at the start of the crisis, specifically  including, as foreign affairs minister Michèle Alliot-Marie described it, "the savoir-faire, recognised throughout the world of [French] security forces in order to settle security situations of this type". The French president's words embarrassed his government once the protests picked up steam to the point of creating a " crisis of credibility" that necessitated Sarkozy's "admission of mistakes" in supporting Ben Ali against the revolutionaries.

So strong was Sarkozy's embarrassment that when the Libyan crisis erupted, France took the lead in pressing for Western military intervention to force Gaddafi from power in order to absolve itself of its Tunisian sins. Yet it was precisely the launching of NATO's air war and military support for the Libyan rebels that led to the exodus of well-trained fighters and significant weapons stocks from Libya into Niger, Mali and other parts of the Sahel in the wake of the crumbling of Gaddafi's state. The chaos and spread of weapons generated by the Libya war put crucial numbers of men and arms into play in northern Mali at a particularly dangerous moment in the country's history, when long oppressed Touaregs, who'd been recipients of Gaddafi's largesse in the past (and some of whom in fact fought for Gaddafi), were once again primed to rebel against the central government.

 
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