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The unwinnable war in the Sahara that the West doesn’t want you to know about

Britain joins the US and France, which are floundering as human trafficking and drug smuggling mix with Islamist groups in the region.

The British government is about to deploy helicopters to Mali. “We are yet to finalise deployment dates, but we expect the Chinooks to deploy in the near future,” a Ministry of Defence spokesman told the New Statesman.

Sending the three helicopters to join other RAF aircraft supporting the French operation in Mali, codenamed Operation Barkhane, was first announced during the visit to Downing Street by the French President Emmanuel Macron in January.

The January announcement attracted relatively little comment, but it should not obscure just what a quagmire the force will be entering. They will be going into the Sahel – the vast region stretching from Mauritania on the Atlantic to Eritrea on the Red Sea. It has been traversed by traders, who carried gold, salt and slaves from Africa to the Arab states of North Africa for thousands of years.

Today the same routes carry very different cargoes. Smugglers, who once traded in cigarettes, now transport Latin American cocaine destined for Europe. The drug is landed in Guinea Bissau, named as a narco-state by the UN. There is human trafficking, smuggling refugees and the trans-shipment of weapons. Some of this traffic is conducted by traditional traders; some controlled by the Islamist groups now operating in the region.

This map captures the complex reality of these trans-Saharan operations.

Just how dangerous the region can be was underlined by two recent attacks. On 2 March, a co-ordinated series of attacks in Burkina Faso on the military headquarters in the capital, Ouagadougou, as well as the French embassy and French cultural centre left at least 28 people dead.

The attacks were claimed by al Qaeda’s Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM). In a statement they said this was in retaliation for the deaths of several of its commanders during three raids by French forces.

The second incident took place in Niger on 4 October last year. A 40-strong American and Nigerien patrol was attacked by a marginally larger group of Islamist fighters. The response was poor, and four American special forces were killed before air support was available.  

The loss of the American troops led to considerable concern in Washington: the public has little idea of why their forces are in Africa or whom they are fighting.

These attacks give an indication of some of the forces involved in this ongoing war. Here is a simplified breakdown:

Islamist groups and other non-state actors

These fall into two groups. The most significant non-state actors are the Tuareg, who live across several states in central Sahara. Some 5,000 were recruited by Colonel Gaddafi as soldiers in his military, but when his regime collapsed in 2011, the Tuareg returned to Mali.

Better armed and better trained than before, they established a short-lived state of their own, Azawad. A peace agreement was signed between Mali and Azawad in 2015, but it is regularly broken.

The second are the Islamists – some of whom are affiliated to al Qaeda and others to the Islamic State. IRIN (formerly the UN’s Integrated Regional Information Networks), which provides humanitarian news and analysis, has produced an excellent guide to the many groups involved.

There is little love lost between these groups, with factions regularly splitting and reforming as alliances shift and leaders gain or lose supporters. Some leaders, like Mokhtar Belmokhtar, are regularly reported to have been killed, only to emerge alive and with a new following.

African allies and their international supporters

Two African alliances have been formed to combat these movements. One brings together five nations: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. Called G5, it consists of 5,000 troops.

The second operates further south and is mainly aimed at fighting Nigeria’s Boko Haram. This is the Multinational Joint Task Force, comprises some 7,500 personnel from Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria.

In January 2015, the Task Force suffered a major setback when its headquarters, in the Nigerian town of Baga, was overrun by Boko Haram fighters, and it has since been transferred to the Chadian capital, N’Djamena.

The Africans are supported by several international missions. The United Nations has its own 14,000 strong force – MINUSMA, but it has struggled to make much of an impact and continues to take casualties. Four UN troops were killed earlier this month, when their vehicle hit a mine in central Mali.

The French – who never left Africa, in the way Britain did – have their own mission: Operation Barkhane. With just 3,000 troops, it is regarded as one of the most effective forces in the region.

The European Union has played it part, pouring money into the Sahel and attempting to establish a “co-ordination hub” to try to avoid duplication of effort and waste.

US Africa Command (Africom) – President Donald Trump’s African forces – carry out regular training missions across the Sahel. They also have a substantial presence in Niger. There will soon be two US military bases on its soil, with one near the city of Agadez dedicated to drones. The drone base is reported to be substantial, and little loved by the locals. Armed drones have been used extensively on the other side of the continent in attacks on the Somali Islamists of al-Shabab.

This is the situation into which the Chinooks are being deployed, although they may not be the only British forces in the area. “A small number of special Italian and British forces are deployed in Niger but all this is very hush-hush,” reported Francis Ghiles, an analyst with a long history of writing on the region. 

It is hard to see how a small British contribution can turn the tide across such a vast region, with such complex and competing forces. International forces come and go. The Sahara remains what it has been for centuries, a sea of sand across which goods and arms are traded, and ideas are spread: it is unlikely to change.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?

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How Antifa uses no-platforming successfully to fight white supremacy

The left needs to figure out how to weigh its critiques of Antifa against the movement’s success.

After addressing a virtually empty performance hall at Michigan State University, the white nationalist Richard Spencer cancelled his college tour. The pathetic turnout was the work of Antifa and student organisers, who had blocked the entrances to the event.

This state of disarray is a familiar sight among white nationalist groups. The Traditionalist Worker’s Party has all but dissolved after its leader was arrested for choking the group’s top spokesman, while organisers of Charlottesville’s Unite The Right rally, Jason Kessler and Andrew Anglin, are facing a lawsuit for conspiracy to commit violence.

Even Milo Yiannopoulos, once a guest of American talk show host Bill Maher, has been reduced to hawking vitamin supplements on Infowars, a conspiracy theorist website. His fate is the perfect symbol of the fall of the alt-right, and, like much of their demise, can be largely attributed to the success of Antifa.

In 2017, little divided the American left more than Antifa. While some of the criticism was rather unhinged – like Robert Reich’s bizarre suggestion that Antifa was a false flag operation created by the right – much of it came from a place of sympathy. Noam Chomsky, for example, warned of the threat of escalating violence, branding disruptive tactics “a welcome gift to the far-right and the repressive forces of the state”.

Despite criticism from liberals and leftists, Antifa continued to grow; dealing significant blows to the alt-right throughout the year. This eventually culminated in the deadly clash in Charlottesville, from which the alt-right has been unable to recover.

The question is no longer whether Antifa’s tactics are a viable way to confront white nationalism, but how the left should weigh the critiques of Antifa against its success.

Philosophical or religious objections to violence aside, the left had two main issues with the movement. They argued that not only did its protests provide an excuse for young white guys to cause mayhem, but that the attention garnered in doing so actually boosted the alt-right by giving them notoriety – while increasing the possibility of violence against the left.

Although there were undeniably some young white men who appeared better motivated by the opportunity to smash windows than build solidarity, this criticism is superficial. It obscures the women, the people of colour, and participants from the LGBTQ+ community all of whom, in many cases, were not only members of Antifa, but actually lead the movement.

Masquerading as an intersectional perspective, the white-men-mayhem critique erased the contributions of people of colour in Antifa and mistakenly centred whiteness in the struggle against white supremacy.

Despite the tactics of the left, violence remains a distinct part of far-right practice, with frequent brutality seen by right-wing and white nationalists over the last year. From the shooting of a protester in Portland in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election, to the seven people stabbed at a neo-Nazi event in Sacramento, to the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, it seemed the white supremacist movement did not need much excuse to enact violence.

Under these conditions, self-defence is becoming an unwanted but indispensable activity for left activism. As the academic Dr Cornel West said after Charlottesville, where he was present: without Antifa, he and the members of the clergy there “would have been crushed like cockroaches”.

Lamenting his inability to hold college tours, Richard Spencer commented on how the carnival-like atmosphere around their events was good for recruiting. According to Spencer, such controversy allowed the alt-right to “present ourselves as curiosities”, attracting people wondering “what are these crazy racist ideas I’ve been hearing about”.

While he benefits from a contained chaos, there comes a point where opposition becomes unmanageable. It is unfair and irresponsible to ask communities to tolerate white nationalism by ignoring it; we must instead build a determined opposition to its growth.

The student activists at MSU offer an example of how coordinated opposition can successfully prevent the alt-right from achieving their goals – containing the scourge of white supremacy.

Antifa was alarming to many because its radical tactics disrupted our lives. It is harrowing to look around and see you are surrounded by rot. But to build a better future, we must see the world as it is and to stand in solidarity with each other to make changes.

David Griscom is a contributing writer and researcher with The Michael Brooks Show, a left-wing podcast whose guests typically include figures from left media including Jacobin, Current Affairs, and Chapo Trap House.