by Piet Coetzer

Conflict in Mali

Another chapter in a never-ending war

Francois Hollande
Francois Hollande.jpg

The north of Africa has suddenly become the hottest theatre where the global war on terror is being fought. Not only has this developed into a war with no foreseeable end but it is also representative of the traditional role that the United States tends to play in global conflicts. 

The military intervention in Mali by France, supported by some of its Nato allies, including the US, on 11 January is, in essence, another chapter in the conflict that started in Libya, just short of two years ago. There are a lot of similarities between then and now but also some stark differences, like erstwhile allies becoming the latest enemies.

The broad backdrop to what is now happening in Mali and the countries surrounding it in the north of Africa is the 'global war on terror', declared by then US president George W. Bush in the wake of the 2001 9/11 attacks in the US.

As if singing from the American hymn sheet, French president, Francois Hollande, said of the Mali intervention that “the terrorists should know that France will always be there when what’s at stake is ... the right of a people (of Mali) ... to live in freedom and democracy.”

But there is also an important shift taking place in the way in which the global war on terror is being conducted by the Americans. Renowned strategic analyst firm Stratfor in an article under the heading Avoiding the Wars That Never Ends says that the US “is moving away from the view that it has the primary responsibility for trying to manage the world on behalf of itself, the Europeans and its other allies. Instead, the burden is shifting to those who have immediate interests involved”.

In this context, one finds some deep ironies in the fact that the fall of Muammar Gaddafi 16 months ago has assured the rebels in Mali of a steady supply of weapons from the late dictator’s now abandoned stockpiles. Tuareg fighters from Northern Mali, who served Gaddafi as mercenaries, retreated to their homeland, taking with them as much weaponry as they could. They linked up with ethnic separatist and Islamist militias to establish control over that part of the country where their fight for separate statehood is a historical one. From here they are pushing south in the direction of the capital Bamako.

The intervention at the time in Libya also had another unintended consequence for Western countries, among whom France also played a leading role. In the words of a report by The New York Times  “at the height of the battle the Tuareg commanders of three of the four Malian units in the north decided to change sides and join the insurrection, taking weapons, valuable equipment and their American training with them. They were also followed by 1600 additional army defectors, demolishing the government's hope of resisting the rebel attack. 

“In other words, it's very likely that the French and their allies-to-come in Mali will be battling rebel troops trained by the US Special Forces.”

In the war on terror,  the enemy is not a well-defined or identifiable national state, grouping of states or even a specific group. 

Stratfor writes that  “The main war (is) .. not against one specific terrorist group, but rather against an idea: the radical tendency in Islam. Most Muslims are not radicals, but any religion with one billion adherents will have its share of extremists. The tendency is there, and it is deeply rooted.

“If the goal of the war (in Afghanistan from which the US is withdrawing now) were the destruction of this radical tendency, then it was not going to happen, ”and the military action could only mitigate the threat, not eliminate it. Therefore, what some called the 'Long War' really became permanent war.”

Analysing the historical American tendency to delay intervention in global conflicts to as late as possible, with the two world wars as examples, Stratfor comes to the conclusion that the US is stepping back from the role as global policeman.

In this regard, the “French intervention in Mali is particularly interesting. France retains interests in its former colonial empire in Africa and Mali is at the geographical centre of these interests. 

“To the north of Mali is Algeria, where France has significant energy investments; to the east of Mali is Niger, where France has a significant stake in the mining of mineral resources, particularly uranium; and to the south of Mali is Ivory Coast, where France plays a major role in cocoa production. The future of Mali matters to France far more than it matters to the United States,” Stratfor writes.

This does not, however, mean that the US is a totally disinterested party to the conflict, that it might sometime in the not-too-distant future be drawn into the conflict in more than just an intelligence and logistic support role.

Apart from the argument that the geographical region, of which Mali is the centre, might become a base for international terror attacks, America also has other economic and strategic interests at stake. 

According to a report by Information Clearing House ( “The US currently receives about 18% of its energy supplies from Africa, a figure that is slated to rise to 25% by 2015. In this regard it is important to note that the continent also provides about one-third of China’s energy needs, plus copper, platinum, timber and iron ore.”

Less than a decade ago the US had just about no military presence in Africa. It might not be directly involved in any conflicts at present but its most active base for unmanned  drone activity, outside of Afghanistan’s war zone, is at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti.

At the same time the US Africa Command has made known plans to deploy at least 4000 American soldiers to no less than 35 African countries this year. 

Clearly Africa is being militarised for more than just a war on terror.

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