The intervention trap

The joint French and British military action in Mali misunderstands the nature of terrorism in the Sahel and the ambitions of al-Qaeda.

In Diabaly, deep in rural Mali, a man inspects the wreckage of Tuareg rebels' pick-up trucks. Photograph: Marco Gualazzini/Eyevine

France’s official war aims in Mali are: 1) combatting “Islamic terrorism” and 2) re-establishing Mali’s territorial integrity. The question is how those aims relate to one another. Is Mali threatened by “Islamic terrorism”? That depends on what one means by the term, and it is clear that we are still stuck in the kind of semantic and political confusion introduced by the Bush administration when it launched its “war on terror” after the 11 September 2001 attacks.

“Islamic terrorism” is a notion capacious enough to contain almost anything: al-Qaeda, naturally, but also parties that are primarily nationalist, such as Hamas; local movements that want to establish sharia, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan or Ansar Dine in Mali; indeed, more or less any religious party that speaks of Islamic law. (Some would include even the Muslim Brotherhood under this heading.) This confusion prevents the elaboration of a clear, long-term strategy, because it conflates legitimate actors, with whom the west can and must negotiate, even if they are anti-western, with terrorists whose sole objective is confrontation with the west and who have no social base.

The territorial integrity of Mali is threatened above all by Tuareg groups in the north of the country, who consider themselves, rightly or wrongly, to have been ignored by successive Malian governments run largely by black Africans from the south. These are long-standing grievances, going back more than 30 years, and are the consequence of the colonial division between North Africa, which is mostly in the hands of Arabs, and Central Africa, largely in the control of black Africans. The Tuaregs have been the losers in this partition, and are now concentrated in Chad, Mali and Niger. Excluded from power, they have profited from cross-border smuggling and have taken advantage of regional conflicts (including the revolution in Libya) to arm themselves. Meanwhile, their recent appeal to Islam has allowed them to pose as bearers of a universal message, their tribal identity notwithstanding.

In truth, the Tuareg question is a matter of ethno-national tensions and has little to do with Islamism. It is a problem that can only be resolved by political negotiation that aims to establish a more equitable balance of power. In order to re-establish Mali’s territorial integrity, a solid and stable central state is required (for the moment, such a thing does not exist). Rather than restoring a viable state for all Malians, the French intervention risks exacerbating ethnic tensions by handing power back to a particular faction that is unwilling to share it.

A second problem, not restricted to Mali, is the religious radicalisation of movements that are primarily ethno-nationalist in nature. Historically, the Tuaregs have been represented by secular groups, such as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, which began the latest uprising. Today, these are accompanied by Salafist elements, such as Ansar Dine, which emphasise the implementation of sharia law and the construction of an Islamic emirate (whose borders would correspond more or less to those of the area to which the nationalists are laying claim). This has been a recurrent phenomenon in the Muslim world since the 1980s – think of the mujahedin in Afghanistan being followed by the Taliban. Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon exemplify the Islamicisation of nationalist or regionalist movements.

Curiously, it is in tribal zones such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Mali, that the mutation of regionalist struggles into religious conflicts has gone furthest. National or ethnic self-assertion doubles up as a demand for the creation of “Islamic emirates”. Southern Afghanistan is a good example of a tribal society (in this case, the Pashtuns) expressing its ethnic identity in the form of a religious movement (the Taliban). It happens because the appeal to sharia allows such groups to overcome tribal divisions without threatening the tribal system as a whole. This is an old phenomenon – one thinks of the Sudanese Mahdi in the 1880s or the Rif war in Morocco in the 1920s.

To view such movements through the prism of “Islamic terrorism” is absurd and dangerous. The recent split in Ansar Dine between a Salafist tendency and a Tuareg nationalist group is a clear indication that this complex of factors (sharia law, tribal coalitions and ethno-nationalist claims) can be reassembled in various ways, with one or the other of the elements taking precedence. A new movement in Mali, the Islamic Movement for Azawad, attaches more importance to tractable political demands than to the introduction of sharia. It should be a partner in any negotiation.

There is nothing new or distinctive about the activities of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao) or any of the other small bands of international jihadists operating in the Sahel. The groups linked to al-Qaeda are nomadic, almost by definition – they are not anchored in the societies in which they operate.

The set-up has been the same for two decades; al-Qaeda is composed of international jihadists and is never the expression of local social or political interests. The composition of the group that attacked the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria is a prime example: its members were from several different countries and of various races, and also included converts. Al-Qaeda’s main recruiting ground is still the west, rather than societies in the Muslim world (it has recruited few Malians). AQIM has no sociological roots in the Sahel; instead, it trades on its alliance with local Salafist forces and also with delinquent, criminal elements. This was equally the case in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Al-Qaeda acts mostly on the periphery of the Muslim world (Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Yemen, the Sahel) but rarely in the heart of the Middle East (the brief episode of Abu Musab al- Zarqawi in Iraq excepted). It is not a political movement that seeks to establish authentic local Islamic emirates; its principal target is the west, as the attack on the Algerian gas complex, in which non-Muslim expatriates were singled out, shows. Al-Qaeda’s strategy is global and deterritorialised – it aims to multiply confrontations, with the west always in its sights. Simply put, al-Qaeda is parasitic upon local conflicts, which have their own logic, and tries to radicalise them in an anti-western direction so as to lure the west into the trap of intervention.

The Bush administration did not grasp the deterritorialised nature of al-Qaeda and desperately sought to reduce the number of sanctuaries available to it by controlling territory, through deployment of troops on the ground. This strategy is hopeless: to occupy territory requires hundreds of thousands of soldiers, and usually by the time they are in place al-Qaeda has already fled (this was the case in Afghanistan in 2001). In this sense, and whatever moral and legal reservations one might have about it, President Obama’s anti-terrorist strategy – not to deploy the army and instead to use drones, the intelligence services and special forces – is much more effective and much less costly, because it is tailored to fit al-Qaeda’s distinctive modus operandi.

It would be absurd for the French to think they could evict al-Qaeda from the Maghreb by occupying territory: al-Qaeda would simply regroup a little further away. And if the aim is the destruction of these groups, that is also absurd. Given the small numbers of fighters involved (a few hundred) and given that al-Qaeda recruits internationally, it would be easy for them to take flight, to cross borders or to return to London or Toronto in jeans and without beards.

Al-Qaeda is a nuisance but not a strategic threat. It would lose much of its potency if the local forces it takes advantage of could be persuaded that they have no reason to protect it. This did not happen in Afghanistan in 2001, when Mullah Omar, against the advice of his Taliban lieutenants, refused to extradite Osama Bin Laden; it did happen in Bosnia and Iraq, where local fighters ended up driving out foreign jihadists. And it could happen in Yemen and Syria, and should happen in Mali, if negotiations are opened with local elements. But, for that to occur, these forces should not be labelled “terrorists we don’t talk to”.

Why has France intervened in Mali? There are several reasons. First, the urgency. In threatening the capital, Bamako, Islamist groups are endangering Mali’s very existence, which cannot be tolerated. The Malian government, weak as it is, asked France to intervene, even in the absence of any bilateral assistance agreement. The fall of Bamako would damage French credibility badly and would open a Pandora’s box, with unimaginable consequences. In short, intervention is seen as the lesser evil.

There are two further reasons why France has entered the conflict without reservations. First, there is François Hollande’s need to look like he’s boss and to put an end to the incessant comparisons with Nicolas Sarkozy, an activist president who had “his” war in Libya. Second is the pressure to intervene put on Hollande by the French army. The army did not feel at ease in Afghanistan, where it was always the junior partner to the Americans (the British know what this is like). Things weren’t any better in Libya, where the army felt it was treated like a band of mercenaries subject to Sarkozy’s whims – and all for a cause it did not believe in. The French officer corps is very “culturalist” and often has a “civilisational” view of current conflicts. It is suspicious of the various Arab springs, which have brought Islamists to power.

Moreover, the war in Libya was fought mainly by the French navy and air force, leaving the army marginalised. It now wants to reassert its pre-eminence. There is what one might call a “corporatist” dimension here that cannot be ignored.

By intervening in Mali, the army is back where it thinks it belongs. After the withdrawal from Afghanistan, it can show that it is indispensable and so protect itself against looming budget restrictions. A prolonged dearth of external operations could lead the government to question the usefulness of much of its defence spending (there is nothing outlandish about this: it is what is happening in Sweden, for instance, and most European countries are in the process of sacrificing their armed forces, the assumption being that, if it comes to the crunch, we can always rely on the Americans to do the job).

Mali presents the army with a defined cause: to protect Malian society from Islamic terrorism and sharia law. And, finally, the army is back in the kind of theatre of operations it knows well and in which it has already proved itself – it is well equipped, in both manpower and tactical know-how, to prosecute this kind of war in Africa. This time, the French army is in the position of leader in relation to the other members of Nato. It has a good network of contacts in what remains of the African armies, many of whose officers were trained in France.

Why is Hollande going along with this agenda? We have already mentioned his desire to appear to be in charge – of the armed forces, in particular. There is also the French left’s complex about the army which dates back to the war in Algeria and the coup of 13 May 1958, which led to de Gaulle’s return to power. The left in government has always allowed the army, about which it knows little, considerable autonomy, more out of suspicion than confidence. Last, there is Hollande’s desire to differentiate himself from Sarkozy while establishing his presence on the international stage.

In certain Parisian milieux, it is considered good form to dismiss the war in Libya as a dangerous adventure that has left the country, if not in the hands of the Islamists, then at least in a kind of tribal anarchy. The Libyan intervention of 2011 is even identified as the principal cause of the uprising in northern Mali, attributed to the return of hundreds of heavily armed Tuareg mercenaries hired by Muammar al-Gaddafi, who found themselves looking for work after the fall of the colonel. However, even if the decision to intervene in Libya was risky, to say the least, one must nonetheless recognise that there is nothing catastrophic about what is happening there today. In fact, the Libyans are managing their Arab spring rather well. The Tuareg problem in Mali is not a consequence of the fall of the Gaddafi regime; on the contrary, Gaddafi had been a nuisance to his neighbours rather than a source of stability.

Curiously, the intervention in Mali, in contrast to the Libyan “adventure”, has considerable support in France, with much talk of a “just” or “necessary” war in this case. The conflict in Mali is seen as the antithesis of the war in Libya. It puts things back in their proper place: it is a struggle to defend secularism or laïcité, the values of the Enlightenment and territorial integrity against Islamic terrorists who enforce sharia law, force women to wear the veil and kill westerners.

Crudely, this war fits with the paradigm of a “clash of civilisations” and the struggle against the Muslim menace (a paradigm that conversely has been undermined by the Arab spring and the war in Libya). And it goes hand in hand with both the jubilation with which the western press has reported the alleged failure of the Arab spring and the anti- Islamic sentiments expressed in an opinion poll taken a week after the military operation in Mali began.

The secular left and the nativist right alike have good reason to support the war, or at least to tolerate it. This is because it seems “readable”, pitting the forces of civilisation and reason against Islamic obscurantism. It can be sold as such to public opinion. Yet this has nothing to do with what is happening on the ground, where something other than propaganda and clichés, even when these are accompanied by troops, is needed if France is to emerge from the conflict with honour.

Facts are stubborn things, as Lenin said. Despite the moralising, the ideological posturing, the junk geopolitical strategising (the west against Islamic terrorism) which has held politicians, journalists and the military captive for a decade, though it has been continually disproved by events, the old problems will return: in this instance, how to deal with the indifference of certain states to legitimate and negotiable political demands. The answer is to do proper politics – and that is especially true when you are going to war.

Olivier Roy is head of the Mediterranean Programme at the European University Institute in Florence. This essay, written exclusively for the NS, was translated from the French by Jonathan Derbyshire.

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