Mali’s current agony has only just emerged in our headlines, but the roots go back generations. Like the other Western colonial powers that invaded and conquered Africa from the 19th century onwards, France used tactics of divide-and-rule in Mali, leading to entrenched bitterness between the nomadic Tuareg people – the base of the current revolt – and other communities in Mali.
To some Westerners, this is a distant past to be ignored, moved on from, and certainly not used to preclude noble interventions; but the consequences are still being felt on a daily basis. Initially, the French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, suggested its colonial legacy ruled out a France-led intervention; its sudden involvement is far more rapid than expected.
But this intervention is itself the consequence of another. The Libyan war is frequently touted as a success story for liberal interventionism. Yet the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi’s dictatorship had consequences that Western intelligence services probably never even bothered to imagine. Tuaregs – who traditionally hailed from northern Mali – made up a large portion of his army. When Gaddafi was ejected from power, they returned to their homeland: sometimes forcibly so as black Africans came under attack in post-Gaddafi Libya, an uncomfortable fact largely ignored by the Western media.
Awash with weapons from Libya’s own turmoil, armed Tuaregs saw an opening for their long-standing dream for national self-determination. As the rebellion spread, the democratically elected President Amadou Toumani Touré was deposed in a military coup and – despite allowing a transitional civilian-led government to take power – the army retains its dominance.
There can certainly be no sympathy for the militia now fighting the Malian government. Originally, it was the secular nationalists of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad who led the uprising; they have now been pushed aside by Islamist jihadists with a speed that has shocked foreign analysts. Rather than achieving an independent Tuareg state, they have far more sweeping ambitions, linking up with similar groups based in northern Nigeria. Amnesty International reports horrendous atrocities: amputations, sexual violence, the use of child soldiers, and rampant extra-judicial executions.
But don’t fall for a narrative so often pushed by the Western media: a perverse oversimplification of good fighting evil, just as we have seen imposed on Syria’s brutal civil war. Amnesty reports brutality on the part of Malian government forces, too. When the conflict originally exploded, Tuaregs were arrested, tortured, bombed and killed by the security forces, “apparently only on ethnic grounds”, Amnesty says. Last July, 80 inmates arrested by the army were stripped to their underwear, jammed into a 5sqm cell; cigarettes were burnt into their bodies; and they were forced to sodomise each other. Back in September 2012, 16 Muslim preachers belonging to the Dawa group were rounded up at a checkpoint and summarily executed by the army. These are acts committed by those who are now our allies.
When the UN Security Council unanimously paved the way for military force to be used at some point last month, experts made clear warnings that must still be listened to. The International Crisis Group urged a focus on a diplomatic solution to restore stability, arguing that intervention could exacerbate a growing inter-ethnic conflict. Amnesty warned that “an international armed intervention is likely to increase the scale of human-rights violations we are already seeing in this conflict”. Paul Rogers, professor of peace studies at Bradford University, has argued that past wars show that “once started, they can take alarming directions, have very destructive results, and often enhance the very movements they are designed to counter”.
It is conceivable that this intervention could – for a time – achieve its goals of pushing back the Islamist militias, and shore up Mali’s government. But the Libyan war was seen as a success, too; and here we are now engaging with its catastrophic blowback. In Afghanistan, Western forces remain engaged in a never-ending war which has already helped destabilised Pakistan, leading to drone attacks that have killed hundreds of civilians and unleashed further chaos. The price of Western interventions may often be ignored by our media, but it is still paid nonetheless.
Western intervention led by France, supported by Britain and with possible US drone attacks on the way will undoubtedly fuel the narrative of radical Islamist groups. As Professor Rogers puts it to me, it will be portrayed as “one more example of an assault on Islam”. With the speed and reach of modern forms of communication, radical groups in Western Africa and beyond will use this escalating war as evidence of another front opened against Muslims.
It is disturbing – to say the least – how Cameron has led Britain into Mali’s conflict without even a pretence at consultation. Troops will not be sent, we are told; but the term “mission creep” exists for a reason, and an escalation could surely trigger deeper British involvement. The West has a terrible record of aligning itself with the most dubious of allies: the side we have picked are far from human-rights-loving democrats.