In his January inauguration speech President Obama declared that “a decade of war is now ending,” and “enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.” But the only wars Obama is ending (and even those not 100%) are the big ones, involving large-scale deployment of ground troops, substantial U.S. casualties and direct naked occupations.
As important as it is that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down – to the fury of the Neocons – U.S. militarism continues to spread in new forms. Out of the public eye this administration has killed thousands of civilians in CIA and covert operations drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia; has expanded the U.S. network of small bases around the world; and has provided training and military aid to support proxy wars. These new perpetual wars are the elite's "Plan B" for securing oil and maintaining U.S. economic and military hegemony in a climate of increased global inequality and the instability created by climate change.
This style of U.S. military involvement and intervention is growing in Africa. Washington's role burst into the headlines in January 2013 with the French deployment of troops to Mali backed by U.S. logistical support. The intervention and the Malian crisis overall casts a spotlight on the legacy of colonialism and the current maneuvers of the U.S. via AFRICOM.
War in Mali
Longstanding tensions and conflict in Mali took a dramatic turn in January when French troops invaded to stop the potential advance of the rebel group Ansar Dine on Bamako, Mali's capital. The French moved up a potential intervention by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which was not going to be logistically possible until September 2013. The French, with logistical support from the U.S. and other European countries, bombed rebels in central and northern Mali in advance of Malian and French ground troops. Ansar Dine abandoned most cities, leading to the quick re-establishment of French and Malian control.
The Malian conflict escalated a year ago when the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) rose up in northern cities and declared the north to be the state of Azawad, using arms that flooded into the region from the war in Libya. Tuareg communities live and travel across the Sahara and the French-imposed borders of Mali, Mauritania, Algeria, Niger and Chad. The Tuareg faced repression for their nomadic lifestyle under French colonialism and later under the Malian government, and have risen up for increased autonomy and economic development in the north three previous times since independence in 1960.
Last March a group of junior officers, angered by the government's management of the fighting, led a coup against President Amadou Toumani Toure. In the disarray that followed, MNLA forces drove the Malian military out of the northern cities of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal. ECOWAS imposed an embargo and immediately began talks on forming a West African force to reestablish Mali's territorial integrity.
Just a month later the MNLA was pushed aside by former allies in the uprising – the Islamist organizations of Ansar Dine, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Both AQIM and MUJAO had previously operated in Algeria and Mauritania and included fighters from neighboring countries. Ansar Dine is a newer organization led by Iyad Ag Ghaly, a former high-profile Tuareg nationalist and fighter for the Qaddafi regime who converted to fundamentalist Islam. All these organizations had gained funds and arms through hostage trades and cocaine smuggling and were better equipped than the MNLA. Ansar Dine's goal was not to establish a separate Tuareg state but to impose a form of Sharia law, which they did, using extra-judicial punishments like whippings and amputations as well as destroying Sufi tombs and historic sites. Many locals protested these brutal policies but were usually overwhelmed by the militia's superior military force.
Colonialism and Neoliberalism at the Roots
At the core of Mali's conflict is severe poverty rooted in 60 years of French colonial rule. Historically the center of three thriving empires, Mali is now one of the ten poorest countries in the world, with the north its most underdeveloped region. The French invested almost nothing in infrastructure or industry. Mali was cultivated as a source of cotton, which remains their primary export and gets a low price on international markets due to French and U.S. market manipulation. Harsh structural adjustment policies and the burden of over $3 billion in foreign debt, accrued largely under a long military dictatorship, continue to block development. In 1992 Alpha Oumar Konaré, the first democratically elected president in 20 years, appealed to the U.S. and Europe for debt relief but was refused.
The economic situation hit hardest in the north. Besides getting little or no government attention, this region suffers from increasingly long and severe droughts that impact the livestock of nomadic Tuareg groups. The Tuareg rose up for greater autonomy and economic opportunity in 1962, in 1991 after a devastating drought, and again in 1997. These conflicts all ended in peace agreements that included promises of development and economic investment, but these were never fulfilled.
U.S. Aims for Deep Control
After 9/11 the Bush administration sought to increase U.S. influence in the Sahara, using the pretext of fighting terror in the region despite the minimal presence of any terrorist activities. In 2005 Washington set up the Trans-Sahara Counter-terrorism Initiative to provide military aid to Mali, Mauritania, Algeria, Niger, Burkina Faso, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, Chad, Nigeria and Senegal. Under the program U.S. Special Forces led yearly military exercises with these countries in the Sahara called Operation Flintlock.
These initiatives were later incorporated into the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), launched in 2008. AFRICOM combines many previous programs of military training, aid and counter-terrorism, working in conjunction with African militaries all over the continent, including governments with questionable human rights records. AFRICOM is growing all the time, with massive construction at its existing base in Djibouti and other infrastructure projects that will facilitate U.S. planes and drones across the continent. The U.S. military continually expands its reach by creating “access agreements” that will allow them to use existing bases in strategic locations across Africa without drawing a backlash from establishing many permanent bases.
AFRICOM put on a humanitarian face by promoting aid and development projects carried out by the U.S. military. Many have questioned why these programs should be implemented by AFRICOM when there are far more qualified vehicles. Emira Woods, director of Foreign Policy in Focus, explains in the video Resist AFRICOM: “What we see now is the repeat of that cold war experience with the U.S. arming and equipping militaries, essentially putting forward a military fist but covering it up with the velvet glove of humanitarianism and development.”
AFRICOM's key goals are to secure African oil and contain China – both of which are crucial to maintaining the U.S. as a superpower. Oil from Africa now accounts for more than 10% of U.S. oil imports, the second largest percentage after Canada and Latin America, and more than all oil imported from the Middle East. Meanwhile, China has major investments in exploration and industry across the continent and has surpassed the U.S. as Africa's largest trading partner.
AFRICOM has played a huge role in shaping the Malian military. Over the last decade the U.S. provided millions in military equipment and training to the administration of ousted President Toure. While the assistance was supposedly to increase security and the country's ability to control their borders, human rights advocates feared it might be used against the Tuareg population in the north.
Impacts of Intervention
The war has resulted in a humanitarian crisis, with an estimated 230,000 internally displaced refugees within Mali and over a 144,000 fleeing to camps in neighboring Mauritania, Niger, Algeria or Burkina Faso. Many refugees used all their money for transport to safety, and aid agencies are struggling to provide basic services in the camps.
In the initial weeks of foreign involvement there appears to be surprisingly high support for the French intervention considering the legacy of French rule. Residents of Bamako and southern Mali showed signs of relief that the deeply unpopular Ansar Dine and their allies were stopped in their push southward. Many progressives in Mali and West Africa have expressed their frustration and anger about the legacy of French and U.S. policies that led to both of these unsavory occupations – one by Ansar Dine and the other by foreign powers. Though some on the African left have backed the French intervention, the dominant view was expressed by Emira Woods in an interview on the Real News. Woods pointed out that not only will intervention not address the root issues of economic inequality and political marginalization in the north, but also that the use of political solutions such as negotiations has not been exhausted.
While the northern cities have fallen quickly to French and Malian control, the war is likely to become more complicated in coming weeks. Ansar Dine fled into hiding in the Sahara, and fighting will continue as French forces seek them out. The full impact of the French air bombings and ground fighting on civilians remains to be seen. Journalists attempting to cover the war are limited to traveling in French convoys, and humanitarian agencies have complained that they have not been allowed access to war zones. The Malian army has been accused of executing suspected rebel prisoners on several occasions, and the Malian government is still dominated by military officials that participated in the 2012 coup. While some refugees may now be able to return home, a new wave of Tuaregs crossing into Mauritania told Aljazeera that they fear being targeted for revenge based on their ethnicity.
As in the case of Libya, foreign intervention is likely to have consequences that catalyze further instability and in turn provide the excuse for expanding the U.S. and European military presence. Already the U.S. is planning the establishment of a new base in Niger to fly surveillance drones over Mali and neighboring countries.
The pattern of increased U.S. militarization, exploitation of resources with no development of local economies, drought, and extreme weather from climate change is widespread. It means that wars such as the one underway in Mali may become increasingly common in Africa and beyond.
This presents the anti-war movement with new challenges. How do we build public consciousness about U.S. military agendas in Africa and the existence of operations across the African continent? How do we fight U.S. military expansion when bases appear and disappear overnight? How do we build resistance to the neoliberal and militarist policies that are at the root of the violence and humanitarian crisis going on now in Mali, funded by billions of U.S. tax-payer dollars?
Thanks to Walter Turner for assistance in researching this article. For more on Mali, AFRICOM, and news on Africa and the African Diaspora, check out his program "Africa Today," which airs weekly on KPFA, Mondays at 7 pm Pacific Time.
This article originally appeared in the January 31, 2013, edition of War Times Month in Review and is reprinted with permission. Visit http://www.war-times.org/.
Sasha Wright lives in Oakland, California where she organizes with SF Pride at Work/HAVOQ and works on her young adult fantasy novel. She was writer and editorial collective member of Left Turn magazine for many years while doing anti-war organizing, union organizing and Palestine solidarity work.
This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (http://www.comdsd.org/)