Mali: now for the hard part

As David Cameron visits Algeria, it seems that Downing Street is only now realising just how long-term a project defeating the Islamist rebels in North Africa will be.

David Cameron’s visit to Algeria is the first since that country won its independence from France 51 years ago. No former British leader thought it worth the time or effort. The decision comes after the penny finally dropped in Downing Street: forget Afghanistan or Pakistan; the threat from al-Qaeda is on Europe’s doorstep.
 
The area of operation for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its affiliates, offshoots and allies stretches from Mauritania to Chad. Some reports suggest that Nigerian militants of Boko Haram received training in Somalia, which would mean that the al-Qaeda arc can be traced from the Atlantic to the Red Sea.
 
The French intervention in Mali is just the latest instalment in this much wider conflict. With hardly a shot fired, and to the cheers of local people, French paratroops retook the ancient desert city of Timbuktu. “Operation Serval”, as the French term their offensive, has gone at least as well as anyone in Paris could have wished.

The only setback came when allegations emerged that Malian soldiers had butchered ethnic Tuaregs and Arabs. The International Federation of Human Rights Leagues said at least 31 people were executed in the central town of Sevare, and their bodies dumped in wells.

International concern has focused on the priceless manuscripts dating back to the thirteenth century, stored at the Ahmed Baba institute. It now appears as if suggestions that all 30,000 manuscripts were lost may have been exaggerated, since many were smuggled away for safekeeping.

The question now is how the French-led operation will proceed. Paris has been keen to replace its 2,900 troops with an African army, and pledges of support from West Africa have been coming in. Some 1,750 African troops have already arrived – from Togo, Niger, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Benin and Senegal. Almost 8,000 African troops are expected, although the deployment has been slow.

France is keen to involve its international partners. Britain, at first, insisted that it would only help with the logistics. Now up to 350 troops are being despatched, ostensibly just to assist with the badly-needed retraining of the Malian army.

The real beneficiary of the Malian crisis looks like the United States. The African Union, led by South Africa, had strenuously resisted attempts by the US Africa Command (Africom) to establish a base on the continent’s soil. It is now reported that the Pentagon will get its way, after signing an agreement with Mali’s neighbour, Niger, that clears the way for an increased American military presence. The agreement is designed "to counter shared threats in the region," a US defence official told the Wall Street Journal.

The New York Times reports that this will allow drones – vital for the surveillance of the vast deserts of Mali – to be flown from Niger. This programme is still in the planning stage, but it would not be the first such operation in Africa. Africom already has a base on the Red Sea in Djibouti – Camp Lemonnier. The United States is said to fly drones from a re-furbished airfield in Ethiopia, as part of its war against the Islamist fighters of al-Shabab in Somalia. Gradually, the US is establishing a military presence on the African continent.

Rebuilding the Malian army will be no easy task. The United States has attempted to train the Malian army for years. American support for Mali’s military was part of a counter-terrorism programme costing more than $500m to train and equip armies across the Sahara to combat militants. “Operation Flintlock” brought troops across the Sahara to be given specialists training.

Less than two years ago Mali’s Assistant Chief of Defence, Colonel Béguélé Sioro, described this training as an “exemplary partnership” offering an “opportunity to evolve alongside seasoned troops, accumulate experience in the fight against criminal organisations and increase our operational effectiveness.”

Yet when the Islamist fighters launch an offensive, pushing out the Malian army from the central town of Konna on 10 January, the Malian armed forces all but collapsed. Mali's interim president Dioncounda Traore had no choice but to turn to Paris for help.

George Joffe, North African specialist at Cambridge University, says the weakness of the Malian army was exacerbated after American aid was cut, following the Malian coup of March 2012. He believes the rebellion will to a tough nut to crack.

Europe’s head of counter-terrorism, Gilles de Kerchove, told the French News Agency, AFP, that intelligence reports indicated that the Islamists have around 3,000 fighters. American sources, speaking to the New Statesman off the record, suggested that the Islamists began melting away into the community as the French advanced. Some villagers were forced to leave their homes as fighters moved in to pass themselves off as local people.

In the longer run, says Joffe, the rebels may retreat to their desert fastness of Taoudenni. These salt-mines are on the ancient trade routes that ran from Morocco to the Gold Coast, or present-day Ghana. “They are riddled with deep mines and passages,” he says. “For a decade the Islamists were there, undisturbed, and they could retreat to this sanctuary if forced out of central Mali.”

Crushing the Islamist rebels is likely to be a long-term project. Their fighters have yet to be defeated and African forces nowhere near ready to take over from the French. The mostly likely outcome of the conflict is that Paris will have to carry the burden for years to come. France launched Operation Epervier to save Chadian president Hissene Habre in February 1986. They are still there today.

Malian soldiers arrest a man suspected of being an Islamist in Timbuktu. Photograph: Getty Images

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

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Of course we could do more to stop terrorism – if we’re willing to live in a police state

 The only way to stop this sort of human monster completely is to become like them.

What are we prepared to sacrifice to keep children safe? On Monday night at Manchester arena, 22 people were senselessly slaughtered. Many of them were young girls, pouring out of a pop concert, giddy with excitement. Hours before the killer was identified or Islamic State had claimed responsibility for the attack, the political conversation had already turned to vengeance, and respected public thinkers were calling, in the name of those dead children, for further crackdowns on immigrants and perceived outsiders, for troops on the streets, for "internment camps'" with straight faces and the sincere implication that anyone who disagrees is weak-willed and possibly a terrorist sympathiser. A lot of little girls have been killed. What good are tolerance and human rights today?

Nobody can be expected to be instantly rational when dozens of kids have just been maimed and murdered. There are, however, individuals who seem more than prepared to exploit the occasion to further their own agendas. Yet again, we are told that the state is failing in its duty to protect "our" children, that pansy liberals won't let us raise the "obvious solutions" to this problem. Nobody can quite bring themselves to articulate exactly what those "obvious solutions" might be, hedging the issue instead with grave looks, raised eyebrows and stern allusions to the consequences of political correctness. The consensus is that we are living in a nation so paralysed by hand-flapping progressive talk-talkery that ordinary, right-thinking folks aren’t allowed to say what’s really on their minds. 

The truth is that nobody’s stopping anyone from saying what they think about any of this, and if you don’t believe me, take a brisk scroll through Twitter this afternoon, and keep some eyeball bleach on hand. In fact, the reason a lot of people are stopping short of saying what they think ought to be done is that they know full well that what they think ought to be done is unacceptable and shameful in any sane society. So shameful, indeed, that it takes a professional shit-stirrer to speak it aloud. 

Enter Katie Hopkins. It’s not just pro-trolls like her who have called for a "final solution" following the Manchester Arena bombing. Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson declared that we should start putting "thousands" of people in "internment camps" in the name of protecting children. Spiked editor Brendan O’Neill echoed the tone, blaming "multiculturalism" for mass murder, and implying that anyone advocating calm and tolerance in the face of terrorism does not feel sufficiently angry about the murder of 22 of their fellow citizens. “It is becoming clear,” insists O'Neill, “that the top-down promotion of a hollow ‘togetherness’ in response to terrorism is about cultivating passivity.”

In fact, Britain is far from passive in the face of extremist violence. Britain already has one of the most robust counter-terrorism programs on the planet. We are among the most surveilled societies in the Western world. We have a counter-extremism program, Prevent, that places a duty in schools, universities and other public bodies to report any suspected radical or "extremist" activity, and is so exacting that it has been condemned by experts and educators across the board as an infringement of the right to free speech and thought. The authorities responsible for heading off and hunting down these psychopaths and all who sail with them are hardly slacking on the job. The problem is that there's really no way to up the game from here without going full police state. The pundits condemning the relevant institutions as shirkers today know this full well, which is why a police state is exactly what they’re asking for, with the inference that anyone who disagrees is awfully relaxed about the violent death of young girls and their parents.

So let’s not mince words. Let's be absolutely clear what’s at stake here. Let us acknowledge that yes, we could do more to stop this, if we wanted. And then let's think about whether that's really, actually, what we want.

Yes, we could do more. We could allow the state to round up and lock away anyone even remotely suspected of violent, extremist tendencies; anyone who has ever accessed a suspicious website or attended a dubious lecture. We'd have to lock those people up for a very long time, of course, because if there's one thing that nudges people from a passing interest in anti-state violence into full on fanaticism, it's active state oppression. We could ban anyone who's ever been in any way associated with extremist ideology from entering the country, including those who are fleeing violence themselves. We could institute total surveillance of everyone’s online activity. We could build those internment camps. They’d be expensive, so it’s only fair that potential degenerates and their associates be obliged to work for their keep. Of course, you wouldn't want those internment camps spread out - you'd want the inmates concentrated in one place. What could we call such camps? I’m sure we’ll think of a name.

If we did all that, and more, then yes, there's a chance that we could stop atrocities like this from happening again. Even then, there's no guarantee. The most exacting neo-stasi infrastructure can’t always stop the rogue loner with a breadknife and a brain boiling with arcane violence. It would, however, significantly lower the odds.

The question is not whether it can be done. Of course it can be done. Paranoid, bloodless, hyper-vigilant police states have been instituted in European nations before, and if any country on earth has the infrastructure to make it work right now, it's Britain, a small island with an extensive surveillance architecture, a mostly urban population, a conservative government currently seeking re-election on a tough-love platform, and no pesky constitutional rights to free speech. We can do it if we want to. Sure we can. The question is whether we should. The question is whether it's worth it. Is it worth it, to prevent the loss of one more young life, the devastation of one more family?

Don’t answer that right now. Give it a few days, at least, because right now it makes a great deal of emotional sense to say yes, yes, it’s worth it. Anything to stop something like this happening again. To save one child. To keep hundreds more from being traumatised for life just because they went to a pop concert with their friends. I suspect that today, tucked away in the collective psyche of a great many otherwise tolerant and decent people, is a furious, frightened voice yelling - sure, let’s do it. Let’s shut the borders and build the camps. It might not be nice, it might not even be right, but these evil dickheads are killing kids, so frankly, fuck the Geneva convention.

That furious, frightened instinct needs to be named so we can deal with it like adults. The anger and the fear here are real and legitimate, even though a great many bad actors are exploiting them to further racist, xenophobic agendas. It’s alright to be frightened and furious. It’s not alright to let those emotions dictate public policy. Today, with the faces of murdered little girls all over the news, is not a day to ask anyone what they’re prepared to sacrifice to make sure this never happens again.

Because the truth is that the only way to stop this sort of human monster is to become like them. The only way to be sure that no swivel-eyed extremist who hates life, and liberty and raw youthful joy so much that he's prepared to blow up a pop concert full of teenagers can never do that again is to acquiesce to the sort of state apparatus that is anathema to joy and liberty and life, the sort of state apparatus that no child should grow up with.

This is why platitudes about 'unity', about 'not letting hate win', about keeping it together and trying not to let our worst instincts take over, are not, in fact, platitudes at all. They are not banal. They are not hollow. It takes enormous strength of character, at a time like this,  not to give in to fear and rage and the rationale of revenge. The people of Manchester are showing that strength in the wake of one of the most horrific mass murders this tense and divided nation has ever seen. We owe it to them, to the victims of this attack, and to their families not to sully their memories by surrendering to the logic of intolerance.

It is at moments like this when a community proves its character.  It is at times like this that it is more, not less essential to refuse racist and fascist ideas. Tolerance is not passivity. Kindness is not weakness. It is not cowardly to stay with our anger and our grief and refuse to let those emotions sway our commitment to human dignity, or to look dreadful vengeance in the face and refuse it. It is strength. It is strength more profound and more human than fundamentalists of any faction can comprehend, and if we hang on to that strength, they will never, ever win. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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