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February 2013

War on terror

West must beware of Afghanistan part deux

As the West faces Islamic radicalism in Mali and Algeria, David Watts considers the real agenda on both sides and stresses the importance of keeping a sense of perspective.

By Kuldip Nayar

 
 
Mali and its neighbouring countries provide plenty of scope for jihadist trouble-making
The 'War on Terror' (WOT) comes to Africa or is it more to do with the competition with China for the resources of the continent?

Either way, as in Libya, it was the French who were the first out of the traps with their air attacks on jihadist rebels threatening the government of Mali, a former French colony.

In reality this is not the first time that the WOT has come to the continent; there were strong hints of it at the end of the war on Muammar Gaddafi, and indeed the weaponry and training showered on the rebels by the West, and their Gulf monarchist allies, is now fuelling the latest iteration of the conflict. Many of the fighters are graduates of the Libyan campaign just as others went on to the conflict in Syria.

The apparently sudden, unilateral decision to intervene by François Hollande, the new French president, runs counter to his declared policies of disengagement on the international front as evidenced by his, also unilateral, decision to pull French troops back early from Afghanistan.

But the territory Monsieur Hollande has chosen for his first major foreign policy venture is twice the size of his home country and, arguably, more inhospitable, being largely desert with a sparse population of just 15.8 million people with a per capita income of only $1,000 a year. Sounds like classic WOT territory. The scope for mission creep and a North African quagmire with a panoply of resource-rich but poor contiguous countries seems high.

A year ago the Tuareg, the serial rebels of the North African crescent of nations, launched the latest of a long series of rebellions against a Mali government that was then held up as an admirable example of African democracy.

The Tuareg were helped by fighters who had fought Gaddafi and who brought with them weapons and equipment. A sympathetic, Islamist-aligned group, Ansar al-Din, provided assistance.

Mali's army, weak and ill equipped, suffered a string of defeats and on March 22, officers angered by its lack of support overthrew the government and the army withdrew from the north.

The Tuaregs were then pushed aside, leaving a situation where the Islamists were in control of about two-thirds of the country. An interim government is now in control of the nation after the coup leader, Captain Amadou Sanogo, forced the prime minister to resign. Captain Sanogo is not unknown to the Pentagon, having undergone training at Fort Benning in Georgia which presumably fits in with the Pentagon's latest stance, since at one time the US was supporting the Tuareg insurgency under the first Obama incumbency.

But arraigned against the government is a formidable line-up of Islamist groups: Ansar al-Din has already made a name for itself by destroying arguably the most valuable Islamic library in the world and the truly fabulous mud-built mosque in Timbuktu while al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its splinter group Movement for Oneness and Jihad in west Africa are both considered more extreme and committed to a holy war.

The stage could be set for a prolonged confrontation between the Mali government, the French and a well-financed — Mali is an important transit point for cocaine headed for Europe, the value of which is estimated at $11 billion a year — and well-organized, well-equipped and experienced Islamist force.

It's not hard to see why this could turn out to be the Afghanistan de nos jours: this is a very attractive conflict for dedicated anti-Western jihadists determined to attract Western forces into conflicts where they can be bled at will. The Islamists have already stated that this is their intention. Mali borders Algeria, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Senegal, the Ivory Coast and Guinea, lots of scope for causing trouble there and Mali itself boasts gold, uranium, bauxite, iron, manganese, tin and copper.

But despite David Cameron, the British prime minister, talking apocalyptically about decades of conflict and making direct connections to al-Qaeda without, apparently, thinking it through carefully, it is important to keep a sense of perspective.
According to the PM's script 'this is the most deadly al-Qaeda yet'. That is quite a claim but does it live up to the billing and, therefore, the feeling of self-importance that he has now given it? Al-Qaeda certainly does not need a PR arm with the prime minister doing its work for them.

The group that took hostages at the Algerian In Amenas gas plant drew its members from a broad range of nationalities, including Malians, and the nature of the attack spoke of sophisticated planning and execution; but the man who had been the leader of AQIM for some time goes by the nickname of Mr Marlboro, hardly the moniker of an Islamic zealot, and a pretty good indicator of his real stock-in-trade, smuggling cigarettes, cocaine and hashish while kidnapping passing foreigners for ransom. Mr Marlboro, it turns out, has been expelled from the movement but perhaps the gas plant raid had as much to do with revenue raising as ideology.

This sounds more like a rag-tag coming together of local interests, Islamic and otherwise, who are against the central government, than a potent new iteration of the brand. And certainly not one with plans to use Mali 'as a base to carry out attacks in France and Europe' — as President Hollande would have us believe, and something that would seem to be well beyond the scope of the organization up to this point. President Hollande, meanwhile, has promised that France will stay in its former colony until it is 'safe, has legitimate authorities, an electoral process and there are no terrorists threatening its territory'.

What is concerning for those that believe such important matters should be discussed at length before action at the highest level of any government is the way that not only French forces are now being deployed but also Royal Air Force Globemaster 111 transport planes, of which Britain has too few already. What happens if one of them is shot down by the rebels and British airmen killed? Do RAF jets go in to avenge their brethren and does the cabinet and, indeed, the British people have anything to say about this? No-one could convincingly argue, at this stage, that British interests are threatened, notwithstanding London's defence co-operation framework with Paris.

What is frighteningly clear is that Western governments still have an enormous amount to learn about how not to play the game al-Qaeda's way.

The French Air Force made a splashy start, as they did in Libya, with air strikes against fixed rebel targets with Mirage and Rafale jets but, given the nature of ungoverned spaces in the desert, there are not going to be many more of those to hit and to have any impact French boots on the ground will be key to determining whether Paris manages to achieve the sort of 'quick in and out' that Britain achieved in Sierra Leone around the turn of the century.

The French must not make the same mistake that the Americans have habitually made in assuming that air power alone can give them whatever they conceive to be victory.

President Hollande has set his nation a pretty ambitious set of goals. Given the neighbourhood, these are lofty and undoubtedly noble aims but time is not on the side of the French leader in tackling the immediate military aims — by the end of March the rains will make the roads impassable and ground combat next to impossible.

How the French president sees the role of his friends across the Channel evolving is so far unclear but Britain has already a sizeable commitment in agreeing to provide air transport into the region for French forces. That already makes Britain and British people potential targets and if the French get into trouble Monsieur Hollande will no doubt come knocking. What happens if a transport plane or a British airliner is targeted?

Better to look carefully at what the Americans — not normally ones to shy away from a confrontation with Islamic radicals — have to say. As the American Assistant Secretary of State, Johnnie Carson, put it: '(The terrorist group) has not demonstrated the capability to threaten US interests outside of West or North Africa, and it has not threatened to attack the US homeland.'

Mr Cameron might do well to heed those words because this particular emperor may still have his clothes but he may soon be an emperor without an army to carry out his wishes: even as he has been making commitments on their behalf, another 5,000 troops were about to be shown the barracks door.

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