In Search of Monsters

Stephen W. Smith on the French intervention in Mali

On 11 January, seemingly out of the blue, François Hollande announced that France would ‘respond to the request of the Malian president’ and send forces to its former colony to fight ‘terrorist elements coming from the north’. ‘Today, the very existence of this friendly nation is at stake,’ he declared. ‘Military operations will last for as long as required … Terrorists must know that France will always be there when it’s a matter not of its fundamental interests but the right of a population … to live in freedom and democracy.’ In France, though ominous warnings did the rounds, the president’s approval ratings soared from a nadir of 40 per cent to 63 per cent. Hitherto seen as weak, Hollande was suddenly perceived as a strong commander-in-chief (linguistically, it’s a small step from chef d’état to chef de guerre). Abroad, despite offers from Western allies of logistical or humanitarian support (France’s plea for military support from its European allies remains unanswered), many suspected that neocolonial ghosts were haunting Paris yet again. La Françafrique, that infamous amalgam of truncated African sovereignty and French interventionism in sub-Saharan Africa, seemed to have returned.

This is striking, since la Françafrique has been the object of self-critical pillorying for at least a decade in France and the French were the great detractors of the ‘war on terror’. So, after all the recriminations, are the French still neocolonial? Or have they finally rallied to the idea that waging war on international terrorists makes sense? Or both? Ten years ago almost to the day, France spoke out in the UN Security Council against the American-led invasion of Iraq. Dominique de Villepin, the eloquent challenger of George W. Bush’s war on terror, has remained perfectly consistent. ‘How has the neoconservative virus been able to infect our minds?’ he asked in an op-ed published soon after Hollande’s decision to intervene in Mali. Conjuring ‘the déjà-vu of the war on terror’, the former minister of foreign affairs urged:

Let us draw lessons from a decade of lost wars in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Libya … In Mali, we will fight blindly for lack of clear war objectives. And we will fight alone for lack of a solid Malian counterpart. Their president was ousted last March, their prime minister in December, a divided Malian army has fallen apart; on whom shall we lean?

Within days, the Villepin doctrine drew strength from events on the ground. French forces began operations with aerial bombardments of Islamist strongholds in northern Mali, a desert two and a half times the size of the United Kingdom; one helicopter pilot was killed. So ended the hope of ‘zero dead’ on the French side, the golden figure achieved by the French intervention in Libya in 2011. The situation in Mali, unlike Libya, requires the deployment of ground troops, and French soldiers were duly flown to the capital, Bamako – first 750 of them, then 2500. They were ferried 700 km northeast for their first confrontation and defeated the Islamists in Konna. But on the night of 16 January, a major gas production site at the Algerian-Libyan border, near In Amenas, was taken over by al-Mulathameen (‘the masked brigade’), an Islamist katiba (or ‘fighting unit’) based in Mali which had decided to make a response, and perhaps to signal to rival jihadist groups that it was in the game. When the Algerian army refused to negotiate and instead raided the facility, 29 Islamists and at least 38 hostages were killed, all but one of them foreigners.

In light of the unfolding drama, the question whether a politically beleaguered Hollande considered an attack in Mali his best defence at home becomes much sharper. No incoming French head of state has nosedived in the polls as steeply as Hollande, who in defeating Nicolas Sarkozy eight months ago stressed he’d be a ‘normal’ president – an effective barb against his opponent. As it turned out, normalcy soon came to mean mediocrity. From the bungled introduction of a high-income tax bracket – 75 per cent on those making more than a million euros a year – to the now imperilled legalisation of gay marriage, by way of the controversial banning of homework in primary schools, not much has come together under Hollande. Last October he said clearly that French support for the struggle against Islamists in Mali would not go beyond ‘logistical and financial aid’. ‘I’m adamant about this,’ he told Jeune Afrique. ‘We will not put boots on the ground.’ Why the change of position?

According to a senior military source in Paris, the situation in Mali ‘degenerated at the speed of light’, while a West African intervention force mandated by the UN in December ‘was getting nowhere’. That shouldn’t have come as a surprise: the deadline for its deployment was September 2013, nine months down the road. But hopes of defusing the crisis through negotiation, and by using the West African soldiers not to enforce but to monitor peace, were rapidly dashed. The Malian interim government, put in place after an inconclusive military coup last March, held talks with two Tuareg rebel groups, one secular and secessionist, the other Islamist.[*] Hosting the talks, Burkina Faso attempted to encourage the groups into an alliance against two foreign jihadist organisations active in the north, one West African, the other an al-Qaida affiliate. The talks concluded in a ceasefire agreement on 4 December but within a month the truce fell apart and the Islamist Tuaregs resumed the fight alongside the foreign jihadists. When the jihadists pushed south to seize the airport near Mopti, which would have allowed heavy cargo planes to supply them in their landlocked sanctuary and put them in a position to march on the capital, Paris decided to act. ‘It became an emergency,’ the same French military source explained. ‘According to our intelligence several hundred Islamists had already infiltrated Bamako.’

Of course the UN has ratified France’s deployment in its former colony, post factum, as it now routinely does with all unilateral military actions. And a West African intervention force – or some level of African participation in the UN-endorsed International Mission in Support of Mali – is likely to see the day. On 17 January, one hundred West African soldiers – from Togo and Nigeria – arrived in Bamako and a total of 3300 are now expected to deploy before the start of the rainy season in early March. But no one is fooled by this: if the draconian form of Islamic law enforced over the past ten months in the north of Mali is not extended to Bamako and the populous south of the country, it is because the French president has decided it shouldn’t be.

In the days when France was a staunchly Gaullist country, observers tended to explain whatever internationally jarring decisions were taken in Paris in terms of delusions of grandeur. They were not always wrong. But they rarely commented on the ‘Franco-African state’ (a term coined by the anthropologist Jean-Pierre Dozon), which then existed in all but name as a result of the slow-motion decolonisation orchestrated by Paris and African elites. In France, most people viewed the African ‘protectorate’ as a safeguard for their nation’s ranking in a world now regrettably dominated by Anglo-Saxons. Other Western countries, given the broader Cold War rivalry, were happy to outsource Francophone Africa, then the least important part of a continent of minor strategic importance, to a willing if occasionally overzealous ‘gendarme’. Depending on what counts as military intervention, France changed the course of history by force in sub-Saharan Africa about thirty times between 1945 and 1990. It monopolised nearly two-thirds of the trade with Francophone Africa while its worldwide market share stood at 7 per cent. Former Belgian colonies included, Paris claimed to speak for as many as twenty African states, which in turn voted for France en bloc at the UN.

Since the end of the Cold War, the prerequisites for a ‘Franco-African state’ – a bipolar world order capable of overriding the commercial interests of other Western powers; the absence of democracy and hence of elite competition in Africa; manageable demographics for a mid-level power like France etc – have diminished or disappeared entirely. Yet observers still tend to explain what Paris does, or fails to do, in sub-Saharan Africa as an effect of la Françafrique. Old habits die hard even in unfavourable circumstances, and the French have needed time to come to terms with many inconvenient truths. This may account for the fact that la Françafrique is such a lively anachronism in their public debates. But if France’s decision to intervene in Mali had anything to do with la Françafrique, at least some of the following conditions would be met: Hollande would enjoy a cosy relationship with the ‘big man’ in power in Bamako, who would have secretly funded the French Socialist Party; thousands of French expats would be making a good living in the former colony; Mali’s mineral or agricultural resources would be firmly in the hands of French companies; and the country’s diplomacy would follow the French lead as unerringly as a sunflower follows the daystar.

All this is far from being the case. First, there hasn’t been a big man with deep pockets in Bamako since 1991, when a democratic uprising swept away the regime of General Moussa Traoré, himself rather suspicious of the French. Second, the vast majority of the six thousand foreign passport holders who have remained in Mali despite the coup d’état are dual nationals, Franco-Malians for the most part. Third, what natural resources exist – mainly cotton and gold – are not in French hands. Mali’s budget, nearly half of it funded by foreign donors, is roughly that of a European town of a few hundred thousand inhabitants, while Mali has a population of 16 million. The country’s diplomatic positions have been as fiercely independent as possible in a part of the world where everyone knows that ‘the hand that gives is always above the hand that receives.’

Last December in the back room of a small office near the Champs-Elysées, I met the man who is arguably to blame for the debacle in Mali. Bilal Ag Cherif, the leader of the National Liberation Movement of Azawad (MNLA), has been seeking independence for a territory he and his fellow Tuaregs call Azawad, or ‘the land of transhumance’, named after a seasonal riverbed between Mali and Niger. His own story is one of transhumance, too. After years spent in Libya, possibly – he wouldn’t say – as a fighter in Gaddafi’s Islamic Legion, he fled home when the Brother Leader was overthrown. Bringing with him experienced combatants and tons of sophisticated ordnance, the booty of his exile, he rekindled the Tuareg revolt in Mali’s north that had never entirely died away since the early 1960s. He struck up an alliance with another Tuareg movement, Ansar Dine, ‘defenders of the faith’. They in turn made common cause with two foreign jihadist groups. Together, they chased the Malian army from the north. Blaming ‘the politicians’ for this defeat, a group of army officers led by Captain Amadou Sanogo staged a coup on 22 March, but failed to win recognition from neighbouring states. Since then a civilian interim administration has been in place pending fresh elections, but these are impossible to organise in a divided state at war.

Defeat turned the tide in the south, victory in the north. No sooner had the MNLA proclaimed Azawad’s ‘independence’ on 6 April than a wave of international jihadists arrived to join their comrades. Some came from Mauritania and the north of Nigeria to fill the ranks of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, a regional organisation that aims to transcend racial divisions between Arabs, Berbers and Black Africans in a holy war. Others came from hot spots of international jihadism such as Iraq or Afghanistan to join al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an Algerian Salafist group which in 2007 became bin Laden’s regional branch. As Ansar Dine chose militant Islamism rather than the common Tuareg cause, Ag Cherif’s MNLA found itself isolated. Soon it was pushed back deep into the desert.

When the French intervened, Ag Cherif saw no choice but to offer his support. ‘We can fight for you on the ground, we know the terrain!’ It was little more than a plea for mercy: the French, after all, might be able to prevent massacres of Tuaregs by the Malian army during the recapture of the north. Ag Cherif knew that an atrocity committed by Ansar Dine in January 2012 – they had slit the throats of 82 Malian soldiers in Aguelhok, a Tuareg stronghold some 450 km north of Gao – would come back to haunt him if fortunes began to turn. Ethnic tensions in the north were already running high before the war, fuelled by accelerating desertification and the scarcity of irrigated land. Since then, sedentary communities in the contact zone have invoked their ‘autochthonous’ status with increasing enthusiasm: the term has become a rallying cry for tribal militia such as Ganda Izo (‘Sons of the Soil’) and Boun Ba Hawi (‘Death rather than Disgrace’). These groups were only too ready to join forces with a Malian army reinvigorated and refurbished by the French. Even in Bamako, Tuaregs no longer feel safe. Most of their leaders, among them members of parliament, have fled the capital for fear of reprisals.

As well as being militarily weaker, the secular MNLA was, more important, financially and sociologically outclassed by its former jihadist allies. All over the north, throngs of unemployed young people have started to make a living from jihad and sharia enforcement. War and religion have become a sustainable way of life for them, as they have for the battle-tested combatants of various katibas who are also turning a profit as hostage-takers and moon-cursers across the Sahara. The caravans of rock salt and gold that cross these wastes are being replaced by convoys of land cruisers loaded with cigarettes, weapons and drugs; the traffic in slaves has been superseded by the traffic in hostages. Faith and business make a perfect match. The mastermind of the operation at In Amenas, AQIM’s Mokhtar Belmokhtar, is known as ‘Mr Marlboro’. Even the incandescent zealot Abou Zeid, AQIM’s other major warlord in Mali, is a Taliban by day and a smuggler at night.

This mundane economic reality is a salutary reminder that the jihadists are not in the desert by their own choosing. On the contrary, they have withdrawn into the Sahara because they have no better place to go. AQIM was formed when Algeria’s Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, besieged though not eradicated at home, decided to expand beyond Algeria’s borders and to rename itself. But the new branding is not a sign that the group is flourishing. Jihadists were already finding it hard to operate in North Africa before the Arab Spring of 2011. Since then their problems have become almost insurmountable: they thrive only in countries where Islamists are in prison, not where they are in the ascendant or contesting elections. As for Europe, the last attacks instigated by al-Qaida date back to Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005. Jihadism looks less like a rising phenomenon in the north of Mali than a force in retreat. The French intervention may well give them purpose and greater coherence.

On the face of it, France deserves the same credit for its decision to rescue Mali as Britain was given for its decision to rescue Sierra Leone in 2000. In both instances, postcolonial ties – a shared history, a sense of special responsibility, a sizeable immigrant community in the former metropolis – go a long way to explain why one country will mobilise for another. No need to invoke la Françafrique, a spectre which should now be quietly laid to rest. Whether the French army will be as successful in Mali’s desert as the British army was in the rainforests of Sierra Leone is another matter. It isn’t clear either that the state in Mali can be resurrected as the state in Sierra Leone has been. In Mali the odds seem stacked against the French. For sure, much like the British in Sierra Leone, the French mean to fight less in Mali than for Mali. The difference is that the British fought the enemies of the government in Freetown, while the French will be fighting their own enemy at the same time as they fight on behalf of Bamako. One could even say that they will provide the Saharan Taliban with the very thing they were thirsting for: an expeditionary force of infidels on home turf.

The bigger question is not why France decided to intervene but why America has held off. Is it simply imperial overstretch and war-weariness? That seems a little thin, given the hue and cry in Washington about ‘ungoverned spaces’ and ‘terrorist safe havens’. After all, the Sahara is six times as big as Afghanistan and Pakistan combined. And why sink money into the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership – more than $1 billion since 2005 – or foot the bill for Operation Enduring Freedom Trans-Sahara, if at the end of it all al-Qaida is allowed to march on Bamako? Why would Obama order more drone strikes than his predecessor against the leaders of Somalia’s al-Shabaab, a group with relatively weak links to international terrorism, but not lift a finger to stop AQIM from taking over Mali? Unless, of course, in addition to a division of labour with the French, the point is to ‘disaggregate’ the multiple terrorist threats in Africa, tackling each individually rather than addressing any common denominator, and so deny jihadism a chance to coalesce. In this regard, even if the French were drawn into the quicksand in Mali, Nigeria would most likely remain the region’s focal point for the US: with 150 million inhabitants, it is the most populous state as well as the biggest oil producer south of the Sahara, and has an active homegrown salafist-jihadist group, Boko Haram (‘Westernisation Is Sinful’). When I put these thoughts to a US military staffer involved in anti-terrorism in Africa, he replied tersely: ‘What we’re doing in Africa is a sort of Whac-A-Mole’ – a reference to an arcade game in which players force moles back into their burrows by hitting them on the head with a mallet. He went on to quote the sixth president of the United States, John Quincy Adams: ‘America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.’ Well, not any longer perhaps. But France has done precisely that.

24 January

[*] Bruce Whitehouse wrote about the coup and what followed in the LRB of 30 August 2012.