On the Imperialist Intervention in Mali


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They say history repeats itself if its lessons are not learned. The truth of this saying is entirely apparent when one looks at the current events being played out in the arid deserts of northern Mali, an impoverished North African country and former French colony. It is fitting then that the bombs now raining down on north Malian towns are being dropped from French Air Force planes, and the troops now landing on the ground in the country bear the French flag on their sleeves, the flag that only a few decades ago dominated this region of Africa.

The narrative in the western media is the usual nauseating one: the French troops are intervening in Mali’s ongoing civil conflict to defeat yet another spectre of Islamist terrorism and oppression, and bring democracy and freedom to its long suffering people. One instantly recalls shades of the Afghanistan campaign that began in 2001 – and the parallels are not accidental. The current conflict in Mali, and the recent French intervention, has its roots relatively far back in the history of imperialism’s power games in the world’s poorest regions.

The ‘War on Terror’ declared by the United States and its allies at the start of the millennium has followed the same basic pattern since its inception: a country displeases the US imperialists, or refuses to submit to their will, or has one or other natural resource required for their plans. The populations of the west are then treated to long-running news stories, documentaries, and newspaper editorials extolling the evils of said country / regime / stereotyped dictator; a sort of ‘softening up period’, mentally preparing the people of the imperialist countries for the coming war to be waged on the ‘enemies of freedom’. Then, the imperialist militaries have been shown to take two main courses of action, depending on the strategic position of their targets: they either obliterate them with brute force (Afghanistan, Iraq) or they foment internal unrest, arm domestic opposition militants and extremist groups (usually Islamist in nature, given the current main theatre of operations), and attempt by subversion and subterfuge to destroy their target from within, using local proxies to do their bidding. This latter method has in fact proven to be the more effective, both for preserving imperialist military strength and for making such interventions acceptable to the population at home. Let us look at some examples.

The pioneering theatre for the ‘proxy method’ of imperialist conquest was Afghanistan in the 1970s and 80s, where western imperialism saw its chance to undermine a key Soviet ally in the region by arming and training the various reactionary, Islamic tribal militant groups in the country, and providing logistical and financial assistance to what would become the Mujahedeen and later the Taliban, using them as local proxies to fight the Afghan government and its Soviet allies. This formula worked exceptionally well – the Soviets were forced to retreat from Afghanistan in 1989, their defeat contributing to the eventual collapse of the USSR soon after. That the people of Afghanistan were now subjected to total dictatorial rule by reactionary theocrats was beside the point – the goal had been achieved.

This method of proxy war pioneered in Afghanistan, and in places such as Nicaragua during the same period, proved to be incredibly effective in defeating imperialism’s enemies while preserving its own military strength and shoring up public opinion. But it was not without fault – when the September 11th, 2001 terror attacks on the United States forced them to once more look to Afghanistan, they found that their erstwhile puppets had grown beyond their control, sheltering and aiding the very same Islamist extremists that the US had once used to such effect to fight the Soviets, who now waged holy war against their former paymasters. In order to counter this new threat, and conveniently to obtain control over Afghanistan’s rich mineral wealth, the US and its allies was obliged to mount an invasion, in part to appease public fears of terrorism at home. This was the negative aspect of the proxy war method – often the very proxies being used to fight imperialism’s aims would turn against it when their own aims had been achieved.

However, this did not stop imperialism using this same method again, this time to subvert and destroy the Libyan state in 2011, ousting Muammar Gaddafi and installing a more western-friendly regime in his place, and securing the vast oil wealth of the country for corporate exploitation. The proxy method was yet again used to launch subversive operations against the Syrian state at around the same time, a conflict that is still ongoing; however, the outcome of the Syrian situation is harder to predict, as the strategic position of Syria in the region is such that imperialism dare not at the moment impose a ‘no-fly zone’ over the country as they did in Libya (a euphemism for using superior NATO air power to destroy the infrastructure of a target state so that the local proxies can actually triumph; without this air support from imperialism, it is hard to tell at the moment if they will indeed win at all).

So what, we ask, have these imperialist adventures to do with the current situation in Mali? Everything, of course. The main impetus behind the civil conflict in Mali are the various rebel groups fighting for one or other of a number of goals – the independence of the north of the country, the imposition of strict Sharia law on the populace, etc. The main groups fighting the Malian government are none other than the likes of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar ad-Din (‘Defenders of the Faith’ in Arabic), and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA) – groups that have their origin and inspiration in the Islamic fundamentalism bred in the mountains of Afghanistan in the 70s and 80s, funded, trained, financed and supported by US and western imperialism to fight the Soviets. Now, the monster that was, to an extent, created by imperialism to further its own aims, has come back to haunt it, threatening western hegemony in Africa and the Middle East, just as that hegemony appeared to be nearing completion.

The United States military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) has never been based on the African continent, headquartered instead in Germany. The chief leader of the opposition to US imperialism in Africa, the main opponent to the basing of AFRICOM bases on the continent and to the presence of US troops on the ground in African countries, was Libya under Muammar Gaddafi. Now that the anti-western Libya has been smashed, and the western-puppet Libya has been set up in its place, the field is clear for the most part for US and western imperialism to move physically into Africa and begin setting up bases in strategic locations in the region. But ironically, one of the main obstacles remaining is none other than the myriad Islamist groups funded by the west to help fight and destroy Gaddafi’s Libya. Large numbers of Islamist fighters, veterans of the war against the Libyan state, have since the fall of Gaddafi moved back across the Sahara and into Mali and surrounding countries, taking their weapons and experience with them, in order to set up their own forces to impose Islamic law on larger and larger areas of north Africa, threatening the stability of imperialism’s plans in the region. And this is where the French military comes in.

The United States has long been the spearhead of western capitalist imperialism, with its running dogs mostly playing second fiddle to its domination. But today, with the US military smarting from blows received in Afghanistan and Iraq, and gearing up for a potential war with new regional nemesis Iran (with the attendant face-off with Iranian allies Russia and China), the time has come for the rising military power of the European Union, internally strengthened by various treaties of economic integration and military co-operation, to take its place as the vanguard of the imperialist forces. Britain and France have already taken part in the destruction of Iraq and the occupation of Afghanistan, and France took the lead role in the bombardment of Libya in 2011 in support of the western proxies there. The EU, with its continuing, rapid integration of economic and military power, will soon be an imperialist force to be reckoned with in the world, a vital bulwark for the United States against the equally growing powers of Russia and China.

And thus, we now have French forces, with the backing of the US and EU, bombing the same rebels they funded and armed to destroy Libya, and French troops (currently around 2,500 of them) gearing up to fight alongside the Malian government to secure the interests of imperialism in the region. One wonders if the French have learned the lessons of their past colonial adventures, for although French officials have claimed that the Mali operation will last only a few weeks, it is very possible that, in facing once again a well armed, battle-hardened and fanatical enemy on its own soil, the imperialists may well be sucked into yet another war that they cannot win, this time against an enemy of their own making.

Alán Camilo Cienfuegos

Photo courtesy of the New York Times.


7 Responses

  1. Alán Camilo Cienfuegos

    January 24, 2013 4:56 pm

    It may be noted that I do not mention Mali’s abundant natural resources (such as gold and uranium) in this piece; the benefits of the re-colonisation of Africa in terms of resource pillaging are obvious. 80% or so of the uranium France requires to run its large nuclear power grid comes from Africa; the advantages of France, and other European imperialists, being welcomed back into its former colonies with open arms as ‘liberators’ from enemies of their own making is clear. This piece focuses on the geo-political aspect of the intervention, thus the admission of an analysis of the new resource-grab, competition with China etc.

  2. Davey

    January 29, 2013 10:58 am

    1) You couldn’t get more western friendly than Gadaffi before he was overthrown. EU and US government officials were lining up around the block to get oil out of him, and he was happy to oblige, at a price that benefited him and his cartel. Wasn’t he in with Berlusconi, Blair and Bush?

    2) Mali ≠ Iraq / Afghanistan. We’re talking about a country with a pre-existing constitutional democracy being overturned by an oppressive fundamentalist alliance who think there is no law above god’s law. This isn’t a case of US-branded freedom being imposed on a country, it’s a case of their native brand of freedom being taken away by regressive book-burning fascists. I thought we didn’t like that kind of people?

    3) You seem to argue this way “Imperialism involves military intervention; the Mali campaign is military intervention; therefore the Mali campaign is imperialism”. It doesn’t hold up.

    I’d be surprised if there wasn’t an economic or strategic angle for French intervention in Mali. Yet, under sufficient scrutiny, I support their presence.

  3. Alán Camilo Cienfuegos

    January 29, 2013 4:45 pm

    The ‘pre-exisiting’ democracy in Mali was overturned in 2011 by a US trained Malian military officer named Amadou Sanogo (received specialised military training in various fields in Texas, Arizona and Georgia, USA). There was no outcry, no intervention then to ‘save democracy’. Don’t be so naive. That’s what this imperialist intervention is about protecting – simply another pro-western African autocrat who will sell off his country’s resources to the highest western bidder. The Islamist threat, i.e. the pretext for intervention, is simply a spillover from the destruction of the Libyan state and therefore largely a creation of the western powers themselves, which is what I argue in the piece.

    “I’d be surprised if there wasn’t an economic or strategic angle for French intervention in Mali. Yet, under sufficient scrutiny, I support their presence” … The economic and strategic nature of this operation is obvious, yet in spite of this you still support imperialism?

    • Davey

      February 1, 2013 2:08 pm

      I honestly don’t think it’s a good example of imperialism.

      They were invited in, for one, and enjoy apparent popular support too.
      It’s the rebels who want to impose their will on people, not France.

      The matter of the coup is relevant, but ECOWAS have been trying to deal with it. I imagine we both want free and fair elections in Mali as soon as possible. If the rebels had taken over, there would be absolutely no chance of it. If peace comes to Mali, democracy can be properly restored. The rebellion seems to be the major cause of the coup in the first place.

      As for your claim that there was no outcry about the coup, that’s a bare-faced lie. It was condemned from every continent, aid was cut, diplomatic ties were severed and embargoes were put in place.

  4. Roger Annis

    January 30, 2013 3:31 pm

    While I do appreciate this commentary on the situation in Mali I feel that it missed several key issues. One is the significance of the national rights struggles of the Touareg and other oppressed nations of the Sahel region. The French imperialists and their allies oppose that struggle and this lies at the heart of much of the motivation for their intervention in Mali.

    The historic struggles of the oppressed nationalities in the region (including that of the Sahwaris of Western Sahara) are decades old and not at all synonymous, as your commentary unfortunately implies, with the aims of the fundamentalist groups that have arrived on the scene of late. Soem of the latter groups have dark ties to the Algerian regime or to the imperialists themselves.

    The Touareg struggle crosses the national boundaries that the colonial powers created decades ago. In addition to Mali, it is also of crucial importance in Niger. France obtains most of its uranium from mines in that country. Close to 80 percent of its electricity is generated by nuclear stations. This is obviously more than coincidental to the French invasion of Mali.

    Like its neighbouring countries, Mali has suffered an outrageous militarization over the past ten years at the hands of the U.S., Europe and more recently Canada in the name of fighting “terrorism.” While your commentary mentions this, it could have spelled it out in more detail for the information of readers. Furthermore, I do not agree with the author that the Libya of Moammar Gadaffi represented a fundamental obstacle to the militarization project of the imperialists. Gadaffi embarked on a path of accomodation with the imperialist powers quite a few years ago. Obviously, this proved insufficient to appease them, but that is another story.

    I invite you to read the articles that I have written and otherwise compiled on my web blog on the subject of the war in Mali: http://www.rogerannis.com/category/maliwar/.