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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I'd only given a literary talk, but someone still told me to leave the country

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

So here I am at the Romanian Cultural Institute in Belgrave Square. Eventually. After a misunderstanding that finds me first, forlorn and bemused, at Olympia, with the London Book Fair closing down for the evening, watching my fee grow wings and fly away into the night air. I am called up and told where I could more profitably go instead – that is to say, the venue I should be at. On reassurance that my expenses will be met, I hop into a cab as soon as I find one (which, on Kensington High Street at 7pm, takes far longer than you would think. I will not use Uber).

I am going there in order to be on a panel that is talking about Benjamin Fondane (1898-1944), the Romanian intellectual, poet, essayist, philosopher and all-round dude. I know nothing about the guy beyond what I learned from reviewing a selection of his writings last July but this makes me, apparently, one of this country’s leading experts on him. Such is the level of intellectual curiosity in this part of the world. Fondane was treated much better in Paris, where he moved after finding studying law in Bucharest too boring; treated very much worse in 1944, when he was sent to Auschwitz.

A little corner of me is panicking a bit before the gig starts: I know next to nothing about the man, especially compared to my co-panellists, and I might betray this to the audience of around 80 (I refer to their number, not their age), sitting in their little gilt chairs, in a nice gilt drawing room, which is par for the course for European cultural institutes in this neck of the woods.

Another part of me says: “Don’t be silly, you’ll be fine,” and it turns out I am. I even manage to throw in a few jokes. During the course of one of my answers I say that the UK is a cultural desert and that there was a reason Fondane stopped moving when he got to Paris. The idea of coming to London to breathe the pure air of artistic freedom and inspiration was, and remains, laughable. It gets a chuckle or two out of the (mostly Mittel-European) audience, who like a bit of British self-deprecation as much as we do.

Or do we? Downstairs, and clutching my first glass of the evening (a perfectly drinkable Romanian Merlot), I chat to various people who come up and say they like my reviews etc, etc. All very pleasant. And then a man comes up to me, about my age, maybe a year or three younger, smartly tweeded.

“I was very offended by what you said about this country being a cultural desert,” he says. He is not joking.

“Oh?” I say. “Well, it is.”

He has the look of someone about to come up with a devastating argument.

“What about Shakespeare?” he asks me. “What about Oscar Wilde?”

“They’re dead,” I say, leaving aside the fact that Wilde was Irish, and that anywhere was better than Ireland in the 19th century for gay playwrights.

“So’s Fondane,” he says.

I think at this point I might have raised my glasses and massaged the bridge of my nose with finger and thumb, a sign for those who know me of extreme exasperation, and a precursor to verbal violence.

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

“Do not presume to tell me, sir, whether I should leave the country.”

He tells me he has a Polish wife, as if that has any bearing on the matter. He says something else, which for the life of me I can’t remember, but I do know that when I replied to it, I used only one word, and that the word was “bollocks”.

“Well, if you’re going to use bad language . . .”

“I’ve got more,” I say, and proceed to launch a volley of it at him. Things have escalated quickly, I know, but there is no jest in his tone and what I am detecting is, I realise, his strong awareness of the Z in my name, my nose, and my flawless olive complexion. One develops antennae for this kind of thing, after almost half a century. And there’s a lot more of it about these days.

In the end, I become pretty much incoherent. On stage I’d caught myself thinking: “Golly, talking is even easier than writing;” but now my fluency deserts me. But God, it’s fun getting into a fight like this.

I’ve left my tobacco at home but the Romanian government gives me a whole pack of Marlboro Gold, and more wine. Vata-n libertate ori moarte! As they say. You can work it out. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution