The government proposes to send eight Irish soldiers to Mali as part of a French-led EU intervention force in that country. According to Irish Times opinion writer Fintan O’Toole, this is all to the good – in a column entitled ‘This time it really is a war to save civilisation’, he writes that while the West has often got it wrong in the past, “Western powers… happen to be on the right side in a war in which the cultural stakes are very high”, citing alleged Malian rebel attacks on art and music. Nobody much will argue that these attacks are good things, or that there is not a pressing humanitarian crisis in Mali – the question is whether Western military intervention is an appropriate response to either.
For others, this latest Irish army deployment is seen as particularly positive because it will, for the first time, be carried out in conjunction with British forces (the Royal Irish Regiment). Justice and Defence Minister Alan Shatter has commented as follows:
“I believe that the provision of a joint UK/Ireland contingent is another step in the normalisation of relations between our two countries… In that sense it is a historic step and provides a tangible manifestation of the very positive relationship and the mutual respect that now exists between our countries.”
So what will this manifestation of mutual respect be doing, exactly? It will be providing military training and advice to an army that Human Rights Watch reports to be guilty of torture and summary executions, with the minority Tuareg group particularly targeted for abuses. This is the military that Irish and other European soldiers will be bolstering, though defenders of the deployment claim they will be training them in human rights (as well as map reading and marksmanship). What could possibly go wrong? After all, the leader of the 2012 coup that sparked the most recent crisis had been trained in the US, and look how well that worked out. (A Malian newspaper editor was recently arrested for criticising the salary of said coup leader). For once, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy had it right when he said that the French intervention was “supporting putschists”. When the fluff of ‘human rights training’ is brushed aside, the fact will remain that Ireland and its EU partners are enhancing the capacity of an army that is predisposed to carrying out coups, torture and executions.
If it is not then a war for civilisation, what is it? In part, of course, it is a war for resources. The Sahel region, as the WS website documents, is rich in oil, gas, gold, silver, bauxite, manganese, copper, phosphate, diamonds and, perhaps most crucially, uranium. There has been little exploitation of these resources in Mali to date (with the exception of gold mining) but rights for exploration and future development have been granted to a number of foreign companies. One such company is Areva of France, which wants to extract uranium in the north of the country. For the last 40 years, neighbouring Niger has supplied 40 per cent of the uranium needs of France’s nuclear power plants (at prices below one third of the world market rate) but Niger’s reserves are nearing exhaustion.
The German government is sending over 300 troops to Mali and is contributing substantially towards the overall costs of the mission. Access to resources is also a vital consideration here. A leading article in the German business paper Handelsblaat earlier this year reported that the federal government saw “control of raw materials [as a] strategic issue for foreign policy” and that “additional security and military instruments are required” in the pursuit of such resources. This may not entirely explain the current German action vis-à-vis Mali but it is likely to be a more prominent consideration than the preservation of the world’s musical heritage.
The US government (another well-known defender of world music) is also chipping in with airlift, refuelling and intelligence support to the French-led forces. As well as having its own interests in accessing vital natural resources, the US (which has just opened a drone base in Niger) is also increasingly concerned with countering Chinese influence in Africa. At his confirmation hearing, US Secretary of State John Kerrey said “China is all over Africa – I mean, all over Africa… And we got to get in”.
The US government suspended direct military aid to Mali after the 2012 coup but will resume it after planned elections ‘restore democracy’ in July of this year. But what is it that will be restored? The façade of democracy in Mali concealed deep-rooted inequality and exclusion, especially directed against the northern Tuareg. As Joe Penney puts it, “all international actors promote a return to constitutional democracy in Mali. But how can something be restored that never truly existed in the first place? Surely the international community cannot support a return to the rotten status quo that brought about political collapse in the first place”. Except that it can and it will. Olivier Roy makes a similar point:
“Rather than restoring a viable state for all Malians, the French intervention risks exacerbating ethnic tensions by handing power back to a particular faction that is unwilling to share it”.
Ireland has, in recent years, become ever more deeply implicated in the overseas military actions of the leading Western powers. This state has facilitated the flow of US troops (and their equipment) through Shannon airport to commit mass murder in Iraq and Afghanistan. (The head of the Shannon Airport Authority, Rose Hynes, told an Oireachtas committee in January that “Military traffic has been in the DNA of Shannon for many years. It is something that is important, it’s lucrative and we are certainly going to go after it as much as possible”). The government has deployed Irish troops in Afghanistan itself to support the bloody NATO-US occupation of that country and help prop up its corrupt puppet regime. It has turned a blind eye to ‘extraordinary rendition’, also carried out through the good offices of Shannon airport. And the Irish government has, prior to the current intervention in Mali, already helped the French government back a client regime in Africa – by sending troops to Chad in 2008 to lend de facto support to the dictator Idriss Déby (whose own soldiers now fight alongside the French in Mali). Small wonder that the Secretary General of NATO, during a visit to Ireland last month, could say that while Ireland was not a member of the alliance, it was a “very important partner”.
These developments are to be regretted but have long since ceased to be surprising. What stands out about the Mali mission is that it is being justified on the grounds that it is preserving world culture from barbarians and that it is a means to cement reconciliation with our old colonial power. By standing shoulder to shoulder with the Royal Irish Regiment of the British army in the African desert we will show how ‘mature’ we now are as a people, and we will together be fighting a war for civilisation. Yeah, right.
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