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?

ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war