Sunday, January 20, 2013

Making some sense of the mess in Mali

by Salman Hameed

The situation in Mali is getting worse. I had couple of posts last year on the destruction of Islamic tombs by these radical Islamists (see: Can Muslim archaeological sites be saved from Muslims? and Need some outrage on the destruction of Islamic heritage in Mali). But that is just one of the myriads of problems. The conflict in Mali is already impacting Algeria and Libya, the old colonial power - France, and the oil companies in the region. I know we have to be careful in making comparisons, but there are some other similarities with the conflict in Afghanistan as well. The tribal/ethnic group at the center, the  Tuareg, span the border areas of multiple countries, including Mali and Algeria. The landscape is spread out with sparse pockets of populations, and there is a foreign, western force, trying to stabilize the central government in Mali, as well as conducting direct military actions against the Islamists. Plus, the extremists are using a brutal mixture of local customs with some of Islam's harshest punishments.

To make a bit of a sense of all the mess, here is a Fresh Air interview with Adam Nossiter from early January. It provides some context to what is happening. This interview was conducted before the French bombing and the hostage crisis of Algeria. Nevertheless, you can get an idea of the interests of the different sides in the conflict.

Here is the bit on the destruction of tombs:
On al-Qaida in Mali's efforts to suppress culture in the region:
"The al-Qaida group, especially in Timbuktu ... has set about the systematic destruction of the above-ground mausoleums — some of them centuries old — that the local people ... venerate because they contain the remains of people considered saints in the Sufi religion. And so they've systematically taken pickaxes and hammers to these monuments and leveled them, and this has been very, very shocking for the people in Timbuktu. They've expressed their horror to me over the phone shortly after having witnessed this. They've also banned any kind of music — and, of course, Mali has a very rich musical culture — but even so far as banning musical ring tones on cellphones. If they catch you with a cellphone that plays a tune, they'll confiscate it and they'll punish you. The only thing you can have on your cellphone is a verse from the Quran."
Listen to the full interview here.

And in all this mess, you may find dark humor in knowing that the US trained officials in the Malian army overthrew the democratically elected government (from NYT):
 For years, the United States tried to stem the spread of Islamic militancy in the region by conducting its most ambitious counterterrorism program ever across these vast, turbulent stretches of the Sahara. 
But as insurgents swept through the desert last year, commanders of this nation’s elite army units, the fruit of years of careful American training, defected when they were needed most — taking troops, guns, trucks and their newfound skills to the enemy in the heat of battle, according to senior Malian military officials. 
“It was a disaster,” said one of several senior Malian officers to confirm the defections.
Then an American-trained officer overthrew Mali’s elected government, setting the stage for more than half of the country to fall into the hands of Islamic extremists. American spy planes and surveillance drones have tried to make sense of the mess, but American officials and their allies are still scrambling even to get a detailed picture of who they are up against.
Now, in the face of longstanding American warnings that a Western assault on the Islamist stronghold could rally jihadists around the world and prompt terrorist attacks as far away as Europe, the French have entered the war themselves.
...
 Over the last four years, the United States has spent between $520 million and $600 million in a sweeping effort to combat Islamist militancy in the region without fighting the kind of wars it has waged in the Middle East. The program stretched from Morocco to Nigeria, and American officials heralded the Malian military as an exemplary partner. American Special Forces trained its troops in marksmanship, border patrol, ambush drills and other counterterrorism skills. 
But all that deliberate planning collapsed swiftly when heavily armed, battle-hardened Islamist fighters returned from combat in Libya. They teamed up with jihadists like Ansar Dine, routed poorly equipped Malian forces and demoralized them so thoroughly that it set off a mutiny against the government in the capital, Bamako. 
A confidential internal review completed last July by the Pentagon’s Africa Command concluded that the coup had unfolded too quickly for American commanders or intelligence analysts to detect any clear warning signs.
Read the full article here.        

And here is a take from Glen Greenwald on the French (and US) intervention in Mali (emphasis in the text below are from the original article):
Finally, the propaganda used to justify all of this is depressingly common yet wildly effective. Any western government that wants to bomb Muslims simply slaps the label of "terrorists" on them, and any real debate or critical assessment instantly ends before it can even begin. "The president is totally determined that we must eradicate these terrorists who threaten the security of Mali, our own country and Europe," proclaimed French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. 
As usual, this simplistic cartoon script distorts reality more than it describes it. There is no doubt that the Malian rebels have engaged in all sorts of heinous atrocities ("amputations, flogging, and stoning to death for those who oppose their interpretation of Islam"), but so, too, have Malian government forces - including, as Amnesty chronicled, "arresting, torturing and killing Tuareg people apparently only on ethnic ground." As Jones aptly warns: "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." 
The French bombing of Mali, perhaps to include some form of US participation, illustrates every lesson of western intervention. The "war on terror" is a self-perpetuating war precisely because it endlessly engenders its own enemies and provides the fuel to ensure that the fire rages without end. But the sloganeering propaganda used to justify this is so cheap and easy - we must kill the Terrorists! - that it's hard to see what will finally cause this to end. The blinding fear - not just of violence, but of Otherness - that has been successfully implanted in the minds of many western citizens is such that this single, empty word (Terrorists), standing alone, is sufficient to generate unquestioning support for whatever their governments do in its name, no matter how secret or unaccompanied by evidence it may be.
Read the full article here.

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