Unilateral French military action against suspected Al Qaeda militants in Mali, justified as an extension of the global “war on terror,” threatens to further destabilize the Islamic world as the United States intensifies its own involvement in the conflict.
Internal chaos in the North African nation has created a power vacuum in parts of the country not under direct government control from the capital, Bamako. The civil disorder in Mali is evocative of the wave of post-colonial struggles of independent African and Middle Eastern countries, much of it stoked by Western powers seeking regional supremacy.
With the advent of the global fight against terrorism and groups like Al Qaeda and its associates, the West has seized the initiative on a new path for gaining influence over territory rich in resources and strategic value. In the case of France, its intervention in Africa is literally rekindling the geopolitics of thew 19th and early 20th centuries when Mali was a colonial outpost for the French.
Motivated by fears — yet to be entirely proven — that rebels allied with Islamic militants or Al Qaeda are behind the internal rebellion and its advance on Mali’s capital, the Socialist administration of French President Francois Hollande launched military operations in support of its former colony’s present government. The move came in defiance of action taken by the United Nations that called for a delay of several months before definitive military intervention was to be considered.
French troops have already arrived in Mali to augment intelligence forces on the ground, and numerous air strikes were launched against the rebels by war planes this week in the most aggressive actions taken by France during the conflict.French forces led an all-night aerial bombing campaign Tuesday to wrest control of a small Malian town from armed Islamist extremists, as more French troops arrived in preparation for a possible land assault.
French forces led an all-night aerial bombing campaign Tuesday to wrest control of a small Malian town from armed Islamist extremists, as more French troops arrived in preparation for a possible land assault.
A convoy of 40 to 50 trucks carrying French troops crossed into Mali from Ivory Coast. Several thousand soldiers from the nations neighboring Mali are also expected to begin arriving soon, and Nigeria said nearly 200 would be coming in the next 24 hours.
French President Francois Hollande launched an attack on Mali’s rebels, who are linked to al-Qaida, last week after the insurgents began advancing south. France’s action preempted a United Nations-approved plan for a military operation in Mali, which was expected to start about nine months from now. Hollande decided a military response could not wait that long in its former colony.
French officials have acknowledged that the rebels are better armed and prepared than they expected. Despite France’s five-day-old aerial assault, the Islamist fighters have succeeded in gaining ground, most notably taking Diabaly on Monday, putting them roughly 400 kilometers (250 miles) from Mali’s capital, Bamako. When the air raids began last week, the closest known point they occupied was 680 kilometers (420 miles) from the capital.
President Hollande expressed public optimism that French attacks will ultimately be successful in stopping what he termed the “terrorist…aggressors.”
“We are confident about the speed with which we will be able to stop the aggressors, the enemy, these terrorists. And with (the help) of the Africans that are being deployed, I think that in one more week we can restore Mali’s territorial integrity,” he said. “Airstrikes were conducted overnight so that the terrorists who are seeking refuge in Diabaly — they have not conquered the town and are hiding inside it to protect themselves — will be chased out.”
As is typical with such conflicts, the forceful rhetoric used by Hollande and supporters of the French invasion in Mali may not necessarily match reality on the ground.
The “terrorist” rebels used by France as justification for its intervention deny any links to Al Qaeda, and much of the French bombing so far has done damage only to civilian targets, including many casualties.
Ansar Dine spokesman Sanda Ould Bouamana told Al Jazeera, “The terrorist French military bombed Konna. The hospitals are now filled with the injured—women, children, and the elderly are the main victims. It’s impossible to know how many have been killed, but the number is huge. Only five of those killed were our fighters. The rest are all innocent civilians killed by the indiscriminate bombing of the French air forces.”
Denying that his organization had ties to Al Qaeda, Bouamana added that Mali “will be the Afghanistan of the region, and France’s downfall.”
Air strikes continued over the weekend. On Sunday, Algeria gave France permission to use its airspace to reach targets in Mali, abandoning its traditional opposition to military intervention in the region. This allowed France to launch air strikes in Mali with jets stationed in France. French aircraft are also operating from bases in Mali and in neighboring Chad.
On Sunday, French jets bombed rebel supply depots and bases in the major northern cities of Gao and Kidal. A Malian official in Gao hostile to the rebels told the New York Times, “The hospital in Gao is overflowing. Both morgues in the city are filled with bodies.”
While the Al Qaeda “threat” is used as the public pretense for strikes on Mali, little attention has been paid to the substantial economic and geopolitical interests at stake for France in the region. Despite its reputation as a military weak link and the leftist domestic policies of the Hollande government, France has spent considerable money and energy in building up its grip on resources and political authority on its former colonial stronghold of North Africa.
One significant reason for French interest in the survival of the “coup-ridden” Mali government in its fight against the popular rebellion is the large uranium mining operations that French energy companies conduct in and around Mali. Closer ties to Algeria and its vast reserves of oil and natural gas are also crucial to France’s strategy for the region, which includes stationing troops in a number of African nations.
French imperialism is waging its war in Mali very much in line with its fundamental interests. A colony of France from 1892 to 1960, Mali is located in the geographical center of West Africa, a resource-rich area that was once the heart of France’s colonial empire.
French nuclear energy firm Areva has already mined 100,000 tons of uranium since 1968 in neighboring Niger and plans to open the world’s second-largest uranium mine there in 2014. The Hollande government is using the war to establish closer ties to the Algerian regime, which has immense reserves of natural gas. French forces are also deployed in Senegal, Burkina Faso and the Ivory Coast. All these countries are former French colonies.
And Mali is not the only location of French military aggression against suspected “terrorists.” Almost concurrent with its strikes on the other side of the continent, French special forces launched what turned out to be a bungled rescue attempt to free a captured intelligence officer in conflict-wracked Somalia, a raid that ended with numerous civilian deaths.
With the prospects of a destabilizing and possibly lengthy conflict in Mali appearing more likely as France struggles to neutralize the powerful rebellion there, a blossoming Western interventionist strategy is taking shape in North Africa. Canada, Britain, the United States and other Western powers have already either pledged or delivered military assistance to the French effort.
If the combined Western alliance to subdue “evildoers” in an unstable North African nation seems familiar, it’s because it is actually based on the US-led campaign to capture Libya and oust Moammar Gaddaffi in 2011. Mali is almost a repeat of the controversial action that generated even more mistrust and anger towards the United States and the West among the Islamic world. The instability fomented by destroying Gaddafi’s regime has actually led to many pf the problems in neighboring Mali, where many of the “terrorists” and anti-government forces are ex-Libyan fighters.
While not in the lead as during the operation against Libya, the United States is on the verge of greatly increasing its role in backing French strikes and taking its own prominent role in battling the growing scourge of “terrorism” in Africa.
President Obama has already indicated that he supports the French decision to ignore the UN and launch unilateral attacks. Now the stage is set for US support to evolve from words to direct actions, with the likelihood that the Obama administration is drawn into another conflict against Muslims growing ever stronger.
Outgoing Defense secretary Leon Panetta hinted that American involvement in Mali could soon become direct ground or air support in cooperation with the French. Panetta told reporters that the US will “provide whatever assistance we can” in helping the French in Mali, where the US already has a significant counterterrorism presence. Drones, air strikes, ground troops and logistical support are examples of what the administration is prepared to offer.
In what could draw the United States into another conflict in North Africa, the Obama administration has pledged to help the French who are fighting Islamist militants in Mali, and that assistance could include air and other logistical support, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said on Monday.
Defense officials would not rule out the possibility that American military transport planes might land in Mali, where the United States has been conducting an ambitious counterterrorism program for years. American spy planes and surveillance drones are in the meantime trying to get a sense of the chaos on the ground. The defense officials would not discuss whether the United States has armed drone aircraft over Mali.
But Mr. Panetta, who spoke to reporters on his plane en route to Portugal for a weeklong trip Europe, said that the chaos in Mali was of deep concern to the administration and praised the French for their actions. He also said “ what we have promised them is that we would work with them, to cooperate with them, to provide whatever assistance we can to try to help them in that effort.”
Mr. Panetta said that even though Mali is far from the United States, the Obama administration was deeply worried about extremist groups there, including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM. “We’re concerned that any time Al Qaeda establishes a base of operations, while they might not have any immediate plans for attacks in the United States and in Europe, that ultimately that still remains their objective,” he said.
For that reason, Mr. Panetta said, “we have to take steps now to make sure that AQIM does not get that kind of traction.”
Even before Panetta broached the idea of more significant American intervention, media reports have detailed the extent of US efforts to support France in Mali and lay the groundwork for more intensive operations in the future.
Firedoglake has an excellent roundup of the US role in the French-led invasion of North Africa.
CBS News reported the ”United States is providing communications and transport help for an international military intervention aimed at wresting Mali’s north out of the hands of Islamist extremists.” Though the mission is taking place in a “lawless desert in weakly governed country,” French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said the operation was “gaining international backing. The US was providing communications and transportation support.
On January 12, “US officials” told CBS “they had offered to send drones to Mali.” Drones excel in weakly governed and lawless deserts and lawless parts of countries it seems such parts are where the US likes to use drones the most.
The Wall Street Journal reported, “France asked Washington late last week to deploy unmanned aerial drones and aircraft that could be used to refuel French fighter planes in the air. Paris also asked the US to provide satellite imagery and share intercepts of militants’ communications.”
According to WSJ, unnamed US officials told the newspaper the role of America “would be non-lethal in nature, focused on intelligence collection and providing other support to French and any allied African forces.” But drones were used to carry out strikes in Libya in 2011 and mission creep could easily lead to a situation where military drones were not just providing non-lethal tactical support to enable French military operations.”
Also, Tom Vanden Brook of USA TODAY reported, “US military warplanes assisted French forces battling Islamic extremists in two African countries over the weekend, according to the Pentagon, highlighting the growing threat of al Qaeda-linked terrorists in the region.” The US is apparently providing support for French troops in Somalia as well. (In fact, on Sunday, Obama submitted a statement to Congress briefing them on US military involvement in a failed French hostage rescue mission.)