Mali: Is France entering a desert quicksand?

This conflict could prove far more intractable than Western powers and West African backers anticipate.

As French troop reinforcements pour into Mali, there is concern in Western capitals that the engagement in this vast desert country could be more difficult and more protracted than many imagine.

At present the French have deployed 1,400 troops. France’s defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, told journalists: “There was combat yesterday, on the ground and from the air. There was more overnight and it is continuing at this moment.”

Their troops have the backing of the United Nations, as well as the West African regional grouping, ECOWAS.  Soldiers from the region are – after considerable delay – finally being deployed. Some 2,000 are promised by Chad and the first of Nigeria’s contingent of 900 troops are expected to arrive on Thursday.

When they can be readied, 3,300 West African troops should join the French in bolstering the poorly motivated, poorly led Malian army in their fight against the rebels. A range of European countries, Britain among them, have promised logistical support and training.

This appears to provide the French with the overwhelming force needed to take on the Islamists rebels, who now control Northern Mali.  But some in the diplomatic community worry that this may prove illusory.

The three rebel movements, Ansar Dine, Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim) are tough, mobile and well-versed in desert warfare.

They have also considerable resources at their disposal.  Between them they are estimated to have extracted €40m over the last three years from a series of kidnappings.  Tobacco smuggling has bolstered their funds. This has provided them with the funds to purchase weapons from international suppliers.

It is not clear which source they turned to, but the usual channels are suspected. Former Eastern block countries head this list. These include Ukraine and Belarus. Vladimir Peftiev, who previously headed the Beltech Holding, a group of Belarusian arms producers and traders, last year had his assets frozen in Europe and was barred from entry. Iran, recently named as an exporter of ammunition to Africa, could be another source.

Military analysts are concerned about the downing of a French helicopter in Mali. The French military have so far refused to explain how it was destroyed, but there are suspicions that it was hit by a surface-to-air missile. If this is true, then the rebels pose a threat to French air-superiority.

But perhaps the most worrying element of the rebel strategy is their ability to blend into the local population. There are suggestions that the Islamists have begun to move families out of their homes in areas they control, so that they can assume the guise of local civilians, if the towns and villages are overrun.

Islamist fighters are deploying child soldiers and using the population as a shield against the offensive, a Malian army source told Agence France Presse. These people (the Islamists) have two strategies: using the population as a shield and child soldiers as fighters," the military leader said on condition of anonymity.

The vast wastes of the Sahara and the mobility of the fighters will make the rebels a tough enemy to dislodge. France, and its Western and West African backers, may have to prepare themselves for a long, difficult conflict.


A picture taken with a mobile phone reportedly showing Islamist insurgents in Gao. 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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Must I unremember the day I wept over the long, slow suicide of a 27-year-old man?

At that time we did talk about the occupation of Ireland. Now we have to pretend we didn’t and it’s all the jolly UK and thank you, England for the peace process.

The misremembering of history interrupts these tales of my own squalid past. Very often I find myself wishing my memories were wrong, or that I’d forgotten more than I have. This would certainly be the case were I to be a politician, albeit a small-time one in big-time government. In the era of renunciations and sincere apologies, I would have to say sorry most of the time.

But I can’t. I can’t get past that clear day in May 1981, when the tangy cold spring air of a New York day got right inside me. Ambling home from another long, messy night in the Village, I was near 52nd when I saw people carrying a coffin.

“It’s not him, of course. It’s a fake coffin,” said a woman who saw the shock on my face. Maybe I was already crying. I knew and didn’t know but asked anyway.

“Yes. Bobby.”

Bobby Sands had died. Crowds were gathering with banners about Smashing Long Kesh and Smashing Thatcher.

The shock of it has never left me and God knows “martyrs” come two a penny now. Yet the idea that someone can starve themselves slowly to death for an idea is shocking. The idea that someone can let them do it, either “for” a United Ireland or “for” a United Kingdom, remains profoundly disturbing to me.

I need no lectures about what vile and murderous bastards the IRA were, or the numbers of innocents they killed. Nor about the smeary sentimentality of martyrdom itself. All I can say is that I had little idea of what “we” did in Ireland as long as I lived in England. A boy at school had run off to join the IRA. My mum said, “Well, he’s always been tapped, that one.”

We were kept ignorant. For some stupid reason, I did not think that Thatcher would let the hunger strikers die.

Their demands, remember, were the right not to wear prison uniform or to do prison work, rights to free association and education within the prison, one visit, one parcel, one letter a week. They wanted to be treated as political prisoners. Thatcher said Sands had no mandate. He was actually an MP, with more votes than she ever won in Finchley.

In New York that day, when we got to Third Avenue, there was anger and then solemnity. There were mumblings about what a death like that entailed . . . Mandela then instigated a hunger strike on Robben Island. There were protests in Milan and Ghent. French towns would name streets after Sands.

At that time, though, yes, we did talk about the occupation of Ireland. Now we have to pretend we didn’t and it’s all the jolly UK and thank you, England for the peace process.

So, must I unremember that day when I sat down on the pavement and wept over the long, slow suicide of a 27-year-old man? Let me know how to uncry all those tears shed for that terrible, terrible waste.

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide