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Wednesday, January 16, 2013 

The latest stop on our world tour.

And so to Mali.  One of the wonderful things about commentating, and indeed blogging is that everyone's an expert.  I know precisely jack about Mali, the Tuareg people and their repeated rebellions aimed at gaining an independent state in the north of the country, and yet here I am typing out a post on a country I have never visited and almost certainly never will.

At least I'm setting out in advance that my knowledge on the country as a whole is limited in the extreme, as have some of the other more honest people.  The same sadly can't be said universally, with some naturally turning straight to their usual positions when it came to the French intervention.  Not that this necessarily means they don't have a point: there is something in Glenn Greenwald's instant jump to conclusions that this will be seen once again through the prism of the war on terror and as an attack on Muslims.  How can it not be when those the French are fighting are an alliance of Islamists, the more secular Tuaregs of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad having been themselves driven out by Ansar Dine and an offshoot of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb?

It's also absolutely true that this is a conflict affected massively by our own intervention in Libya.  How much blame, if any can be assigned to our leaders and their decision to back the rebels against Gaddafi is however very difficult to ascertain.  The Tuareg leadership was indeed involved with Gaddafi, and they made up a significant percentage of his army.  Also apparent though is that the smuggling of arms to the fighters in Mali has not all been the work of the Tuaregs: some weaponry has been provided by the rebels in Libya themselves, who have also been (allegedly) supplying the likes of Hamas and the FSA in Syria.  As we saw in Benghazi, there are plenty in Libya of an Islamist bent who would have no qualms in helping out the likes of AQIM with supplies from seized Gaddafi stockpiles.  The French also have to take some responsibility: they apparently simply dropped weapons into the west of Libya during the intervention, an act of utter stupidity bound to lead to a free for all.

Paul Cotterill is therefore completely right to say this is a situation we should have seen coming months ago, and which could have been planned for.  Of course, we don't know properly what's been going on behind the scenes, but it's dubious whether much in the way of contingency planning for a march on the Malian capital of Bamako by the Islamists took place.  The French were apparently spurred into action by the threat to the town of Sevare, and the nearby military airport, which if taken would have left the only usable airstrip for heavy aircraft in the capital.  It must also be noted that there have been successive UN security council resolutions authorising intervention by the Economic Community of West African States; whether it covers active intervention by the French is dubious in the extreme, just as UNSC 1973 most certainly didn't authorise regime change, which is what we imposed in Libya.

This made clear, there is no reason whatsoever to doubt that at least for now the French intervention is wildly popular with the Malians in the south of the country, and why wouldn't it be?  When the majority follow Sufi Islam it's little surprise they loathe with a passion the brand of sharia imposed by the Salafist rebels, with the banning of music and desecration of holy sites, both reminiscent of the era of Taliban rule in Afghanistan.  They also prefer their former colonial masters to the likes of the soldiers from the other West African states, again hardly irrational considering the past record of meddling by neighbouring nations, as well as the tendency of some peacekeepers to flee at the first opportunity when deployed previously.

Nonetheless, the current goodwill could turn out to be shortlived, especially if the belief spreads that there are ulterior motives at work.  Should the Islamists have continued southwards, the threat to Niger and France's access to uranium would have been further exacerbated.  It's also the case that Algerian fears of a strengthening of AQIM may well have come to the fore: despite their colonial history, France has good relations with the country, and the Algerians favoured the election of Francois Hollande over Sarkozy.  It also follows the pattern of only those nations that have something to offer ending up enjoying a Western military presence: Iraq and Libya with their copious natural resources, while Syria, Iran and North Korea have all for now avoided the fate of the former, if for very different reasons.

The dangers are also manifold.  As Iraq and Afghanistan have shown, it's easy to go in only for it to turn out to be very difficult to get out.  Even in the case of Libya, the intervention took months longer than was first thought, while in Syria the downfall of Assad has been continuously prophesied only for the Ba'ath regime to hold firm.  It's difficult to make any real judgement based on the first few days, but it seems as though more resistance has been encountered than was anticipated.  Any intervention by the West where jihadists are involved also acts as a rallying call: while there might be plenty of places at the moment for those suitably inclined to go (they can choose from Syria, Afghanistan or Somalia to name but three), the opportunity to attack foreign troops usually takes precedence.  As the kidnapping today in Algeria has also made clear, and it's difficult to believe it isn't connected with Mali, there's plenty the groups involved can do in the region to strike back, even if they haven't the capacity to launch attacks here.

It may well be as Mark Malloch-Brown just said on Newsnight that the intervention by the French is the least worst option.  It could also be that the danger of a march on Bamako was overstated, and there was still time for a vastly preferable joint effort by African states to try to push back the rebels to be put together.  Whichever way it turns out, it's undeniable that our intervention in Libya had knock-on effects that we did little to counteract, and that we find ourselves yet again supporting a mission in which we'll attempt to bomb a country better.  We may still know little of Mali, but the people there will soon know plenty about us.

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