Burn, burn - Africa's Afghanistan
January 18, 2013 "Asia
- LONDON - One's got to love the sound of a Frenchman's
Mirage 2000 fighter jet in the morning. Smells like... a
delicious neo-colonial breakfast in Hollandaise sauce. Make
it quagmire sauce.
Apparently, it's a no-brainer. Mali holds 15.8 million
people - with a per capita gross domestic product of only
around US$1,000 a year and average life expectancy of only
51 years - in a territory twice the size of France (per
capital GDP $35,000 and upwards). Now almost two-thirds of
this territory is occupied by heavily weaponized Islamist
outfits. What next? Bomb, baby, bomb.
So welcome to the latest African war; Chad-based French
Mirages and Gazelle helicopters, plus a smatter of
France-based Rafales bombing evil Islamist jihadis in
northern Mali. Business is good; French president Francois
Hollande spent this past Tuesday in Abu Dhabi clinching the
sale of up to 60 Rafales to that Gulf paragon of democracy,
the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The formerly wimpy Hollande - now enjoying his "resolute",
"determined", tough guy image reconversion - has cleverly
sold all this as incinerating Islamists in the savannah
before they take a one-way Bamako-Paris flight to bomb the
French Special Forces have been on the ground in Mali since
The Tuareg-led NMLA (National Movement for the Liberation of
Azawad), via one of its leaders, now says it's "ready to
help" the former colonial power, billing itself as more
knowledgeable about the culture and the terrain than future
intervening forces from the CEDEAO (the acronym in French
for the Economic Community of Western African States).
Salafi-jihadis in Mali have got a huge problem: they chose
the wrong battlefield. If this was Syria, they would have
been showered by now with weapons, logistical bases, a
London-based "observatory", hours of YouTube videos and
all-out diplomatic support by the usual suspects of US,
Britain, Turkey, the Gulf petromonarchies and - oui,
monsieur - France itself.
Instead, they were slammed by the UN Security Council -
faster than a collection of Marvel heroes - duly authorizing
a war against them. Their West African neighbors - part of
the ECOWAS regional bloc - were given a deadline (late
November) to come up with a war plan. This being Africa,
nothing happened - and the Islamists kept advancing until a
week ago Paris decided to apply some Hollandaise sauce.
Not even a football stadium filled with the best West
African shamans can conjure a bunch of disparate - and
impoverished - countries to organize an intervening army in
short notice, even if the adventure will be fully paid by
the West just like the Uganda-led army fighting al-Shabaab
To top it all, this is no cakewalk. The Salafi-jihadis are
flush, courtesy of booming cocaine smuggling from South
America to Europe via Mali, plus human trafficking.
According to the UN Office of Drugs Control, 60% of Europe's
cocaine transits Mali. At Paris street prices, that is worth
over $11 billion.
General Carter Ham, the commander of the Pentagon's AFRICOM,
has been warning about a major crisis for months. Talk about
a self-fulfilling prophecy. But what's really going on in
what the New York Times quaintly describes as those "vast
and turbulent stretches of the Sahara"?
It all started with a military coup in March 2012, only one
month before Mali would hold a presidential election,
ousting then president Amadou Toumani Toure. The coup
plotters justified it as a response to the government's
incompetence in fighting the Tuareg.
The coup leader was one Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, who
happened to have been very cozy with the Pentagon; that
included his four-month infantry officer basic training
course in Fort Benning, Georgia, in 2010. Essentially,
Sanogo was also groomed by AFRICOM, under a regional scheme
mixing the State Department's Trans Sahara Counter Terrorism
Partnership program and the Pentagon's Operation Enduring
Freedom. It goes without saying that in all this "freedom"
business Mali has been the proverbial "steady ally" - as in
counterterrorism partner - fighting (at least in thesis)
al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Over the last few years, Washington's game has elevated
flip-flopping to high art. During the second George W Bush
administration, Special Forces were very active side by side
with the Tuaregs and the Algerians. During the first Obama
administration, they started backing the Mali government
against the Tuareg.
An unsuspecting public may pore over Rupert Murdoch's papers
- for instance, The Times of London - and its so-called
defense correspondent will be pontificating at will on Mali
without ever talking about blowback from the Libya war.
Muammar Gaddafi always supported the Tuaregs' independence
drive; since the 1960s the NMLA agenda has been to liberate
Azawad (North Mali) from the central government in Bamako.
After the March 2012 coup, the NMLA seemed to be on top.
They planted their own flag on quite a few government
buildings, and on April 5 announced the creation of a new,
independent Tuareg country. The "international community"
spurned them, only for a few months later to have the NMLA
for all practical purposes marginalized, even in their own
region, by three other - Islamist - groups; Ansar ed-Dine
("Defenders of the Faith"); the Movement for Unity and Jihad
in West Africa (MUJAO); and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb
Meet the players
The NMLA is a secular Tuareg movement, created in October
2011. It claims that the liberation of Azawad will allow
better integration - and development - for all the peoples
in the region. Its hardcore fighters are Tuaregs who were
former members of Gaddafi's army. But there are also rebels
who had not laid down their arms after the 2007-2008 Tuareg
rebellion, and some that defected from the Malian army.
Those who came back to Mali after Gaddafi was executed by
the NATO rebels in Libya carried plenty of weapons. Yet most
heavy weapons actually ended up with the NATO rebels
themselves, the Islamists supported by the West.
AQIM is the Northern African branch of al-Qaeda, pledging
allegiance to "The Doctor", Ayman al-Zawahiri. Its two
crucial characters are Abu Zaid and Mokhtar Belmokhtar,
former members of the ultra-hardcore Algerian Islamist
outfit Salafist Group for Predication and Combat (SGPC).
Belmokhtar was already a jihadi in 1980s Afghanistan.
Abu Zaid poses as a sort of North African "Geronimo", aka
Osama bin Laden, with the requisite black flag and a
strategically positioned Kalashnikov featuring prominently
in his videos. The historical leader, though, is Belmokhtar.
The problem is that Belmokhtar, known by French intelligence
as "The Uncatchable", has recently joined MUJAO.
MUJAO fighters are all former AQIM. In June 2012, MUJAO
expelled the NMLA and took over the city of Gao, when it
immediately applied the worst aspects of Sharia law. It's
the MUJAO base that has been bombed by the French Rafales
this week. One of its spokesmen has duly threatened, "in the
name of Allah", to respond by attacking "the heart of
Finally, Ansar ed-Dine is an Islamist Tuareg outfit, set up
last year and directed by Iyad ag Ghali, a former leader of
the NMLA who exiled himself in Libya. He turned to Salafism
because of - inevitably - Pakistani proselytizers let loose
in Northern Africa, then engaged in valuable face time with
plenty of AQIM emirs. It's interesting to note in 2007 Mali
President Toure appointed Ghali as consul in Jeddah, in
Saudi Arabia. He was then duly expelled in 2010 because he
got too close to radical Islamists.
Gimme 'a little more terrorism'
No one in the West is asking why the Pentagon-friendly
Sanogo's military coup in the capital ended up with almost
two-thirds of Mali in the hands of Islamists who imposed
hardcore Sharia law in Azawad - especially in Gao, Timbuktu
and Kidal, a gruesome catalogue of summary executions,
amputations, stonings and the destruction of holy shrines in
Timbuktu. How come the latest Tuareg rebellion ended up
hijacked by a few hundred hardcore Islamists? It's useless
to ask the question to US drones.
The official "leading from behind" Obama 2.0 administration
rhetoric is, in a sense, futuristic; the French bombing
"could rally jihadis" around the world and lead to - what
else - attacks on the West. Once again the good ol' Global
War on Terror (GWOT) remains the serpent biting its own
There's no way to understand Mali without examining what
Algeria has been up to. The Algerian newspaper El Khabar
only scratched the surface, noting that "from categorically
refusing an intervention - saying to the people in the
region it would be dangerous", Algiers went to "open
Algerian skies to the French Mirages".
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Algeria last
October, trying to organize some semblance of an intervening
West African army. Hollande was there in December. Oh yes,
this gets juicier by the month.
So let's turn to Professor Jeremy Keenan, from the School of
Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at London University,
and author of The Dark Sahara (Pluto Press, 2009) and
the upcoming The Dying Sahara (Pluto Press, 2013).
Writing in the January edition of New African, Keenan
stresses, "Libya was the catalyst of the Azawad rebellion,
not its underlying cause. Rather, the catastrophe now being
played out in Mali is the inevitable outcome of the way in
which the 'Global War on Terror' has been inserted into the
Sahara-Sahel by the US, in concert with Algerian
intelligence operatives, since 2002."
In a nutshell, Bush and the regime in Algiers both needed,
as Keenan points out, "a little more terrorism" in the
region. Algiers wanted it as the means to get more high-tech
weapons. And Bush - or the neo-cons behind him - wanted it
to launch the Saharan front of the GWOT, as in the
militarization of Africa as the top strategy to control more
energy resources, especially oil, thus wining the
competition against massive Chinese investment. This is the
underlying logic that led to the creation of AFRICOM in
Algerian intelligence, Washington and the Europeans duly
used AQIM, infiltrating its leadership to extract that
"little more terrorism". Meanwhile, Algerian intelligence
effectively configured the Tuaregs as "terrorists"; the
perfect pretext for Bush's Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism
Initiative, as well as the Pentagon's Operation Flintlock -
a trans-Sahara military exercise.
The Tuaregs always scared the hell out of Algerians, who
could not even imagine the success of a Tuareg nationalist
movement in northern Mali. After all, Algeria always viewed
the whole region as its own backyard.
The Tuaregs - the indigenous population of the central
Sahara and the Sahel - number up to 3 million. Over 800,000
live in Mali, followed by Niger, with smaller concentrations
in Algeria, Burkina Faso and Libya. There have been no less
than five Tuareg rebellions in Mali since independence in
1960, plus three others in Niger, and a lot of turbulence in
Keenan's analysis is absolutely correct in identifying what
happened all along 2012 as the Algerians meticulously
destroying the credibility and the political drive of the
NMLA. Follow the money: both Ansar ed-Dine's Iyad ag Ghaly
and MUJAO's Sultan Ould Badi are very cozy with the DRS, the
Algerian intelligence agency. Both groups in the beginning
had only a few members.
Then came a tsunami of AQIM fighters. That's the only
explanation for why the NMLA was, after only a few months,
neutralized both politically and militarily in their own
Round up the usual freedom fighters
Washington's "leading from behind" position is illustrated
by this State Department
press conference. Essentially, the government in Bamako
asked for the French to get down and dirty.
And that's it.
Not really. Anyone who thinks "bomb al-Qaeda" is all there
is to Mali must be living in Oz. To start with, using
hardcore Islamists to suffocate an indigenous independence
movement comes straight from the historic CIA/Pentagon
Moreover, Mali is crucial to AFRICOM and to the Pentagon's
overall MENA (Middle East-Northern Africa) outlook. Months
before 9/11 I had the privilege to crisscross Mali on the
road - and by the (Niger) river - and hang out, especially
in Mopti and Timbuktu, with the awesome Tuaregs, who gave me
a crash course in Northwest Africa. I saw Wahhabi and
Pakistani preachers all over the place. I saw the Tuaregs
progressively squeezed out. I saw an Afghanistan in the
making. And it was not very hard to follow the money sipping
tea in the Sahara. Mali borders Algeria, Mauritania, Burkina
Faso, Senegal, the Ivory Coast and Guinea. The spectacular
Inner Niger delta is in central Mali - just south of the
Sahara. Mali overflows with gold, uranium, bauxite, iron,
manganese, tin and copper. And - Pipelineistan beckons! -
there's plenty of unexplored oil in northern Mali.
As early as February 2008, Vice Admiral Robert T Moeller was
saying that AFRICOM's mission was to protect "the free
flow of natural resources from Africa to the global market";
yes, he did make the crucial connection to China, pronounced
guilty of " challenging US interests".
AFRICOM's spy planes have been "observing" Mali, Mauritania
and the Sahara for months, in thesis looking for AQIM
fighters; the whole thing is overseen by US Special Forces,
part of the classified, code-named Creek Sand operation,
based in next-door Burkina Faso. Forget about spotting any
Americans; these are - what else - contractors who do not
wear military uniforms.
Last month, at Brown University, General Carter Ham,
AFRICOM's commander, once more gave a big push to the
"mission to advance US security interests across Africa".
Now it's all about the - updated - US National Security
Strategy in Africa, signed by Obama in June 2012. The
(conveniently vague) objectives of this strategy are to
"strengthen democratic institutions"; encourage "economic
growth, trade and investment"; "advance peace and security";
and "promote opportunity and development."
In practice, it's Western militarization (with Washington
"leading from behind") versus the ongoing Chinese
seduction/investment drive in Africa. In Mali, the ideal
Washington scenario would be a Sudan remix; just like the
recent partition of North and South Sudan, which created an
extra logistical headache for Beijing, why not a partition
of Mali to better exploit its natural wealth? By the way,
Mali was known as Western Sudan until independence in 1960.
Already in early December a
"multinational" war in Mali was on the Pentagon cards.
The beauty of it is that even with a Western-financed,
Pentagon-supported, "multinational" proxy army about to get
into the action, it's the French who are pouring the lethal
Hollandaise sauce (nothing like an ex-colony "in trouble" to
whet the appetite of its former masters). The Pentagon can
always keep using its discreet P-3 spy planes and Global
Hawk drones based in Europe, and later on transport West
African troops and give them aerial cover. But all secret,
and very hush hush.
Mr Quagmire has already reared its ugly head in record time,
even before the 1,400 (and counting) French boots on the
ground went into offense.
A MUJAO commando team (and not AQIM, as it's been reported),
led by who else but the "uncatchable" Belmokhtar, hit a gas
field in the middle of the Algerian Sahara desert, over
1,000 km south of Algiers but only 100 km from the Libyan
border, where they captured a bunch of Western (and some
Japanese) hostages; a rescue operation launched on Wednesday
by Algerian Special Forces was, to put it mildly, a giant
mess, with at least seven foreign hostages and 23 Algerians
so far confirmed killed.
The gas field is being exploited by BP, Statoil and
Sonatrach. MUJAO has denounced - what else - the new French
"crusade" and the fact that French fighter jets now own
As blowback goes, this is just the hors d'oeuvres. And it
won't be confined to Mali. It will convulse Algeria and soon
Niger, the source of over a third of the uranium in French
nuclear power plants, and the whole Sahara-Sahel.
So this new, brewing mega-Afghanistan in Africa will be good
for French neoloconial interests (even though Hollande
insists this is all about "peace"); good for AFRICOM; a
boost for those Jihadis Formerly Known as NATO Rebels; and
certainly good for the never-ending Global War on Terror (GWOT),
duly renamed "kinetic military operations".
Django, unchained, would be totally at home. As for the
Oscar for Best Song, it goes to the Bush-Obama continuum:
There's no business like terror business. With French
subtitles, bien sur.
Pepe Escobar is the author of
Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into
Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007) and
Red Zone Blues: a snapshot of Baghdad during the surge.
His most recent book is
Obama does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009). He may
be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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