The British anti-war left and the sudden interest in Mali


1:01 pm - January 16th 2013

by Paul Cotterill    


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Since Friday, when white people started fighting there, it seems anyone who’s anyone in the mainstream media is an expert on Mali. Funny that.

I’m no expert, but back in April 2012, I wrote:

Meanwhile in Africa, a nascent democracy has fallen, a large part of the country is in the hands of a different number of armed groups with differing levels of affiliation to Al Qaeida, trouble is spilling over into neighbouring countries and refugees are on the move. All this is happening as a direct result of the UK’s last major military intervention.

I speak, of course, of Mali, and the vast desert area referred to as Azawad by those Tourags who seek its independence. Over the weekend the major town Timbuktu and Gao have fallen to Touareg rebels, taking strategic advantage of the recent coup d’etat. This coup d’etat was itself undertaken by a section of the army supposedly as a reaction to the civilian government’s inability to deal with armed rebellion in the North, and that armed rebellion was fuelled by the massive overspill of weaponry from Libya via Niger into the desert regions of Mali.

In the mix are various groups, with confused and confusing allegiance, and including the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the (Islamist) Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) , the (Islamist) Ansar al-Din and of course Al Qaeida Middle East (AQIM), present in one form or another (from bases in Southern Algeria).

More details are here, courtesy of the very excellent Kal at The Moor Next Door. There’s a handy map here. I don’t pretend to out-analyse Kal on the specifics of what are and what will be in the region, but simply ask the questions: do Cameron and Hague now accept that what seemed like a nice Boys’ Own Adventure is turning out to have very nasty consequences not just for the millions now directly affected (Mali’s population is 16 million to Libya’s 6 million) but potentially for the much of the Sahel and into the West African states?

Nine months on, we know a few more details of those “nasty consequences”. There is open war in Mali. Ansaru in Nigeria are explicitly linking their activities to Mali. Senegal is scared of what may be coming. Mauritania, in its fragile state, is unable to restrict the movements of jihadists through its territories and prey to attack on its own towns, and Niger – already beset by major ecnonomic and environmental problems, will only suffer more from the growing regional instability.

Now if I, from a backroom in Lancashire, armed with nothing more than an internet connection and a keen sense of the unintended consequence, was able nine months ago to predict pretty well how things would pan out, then it must all have been pretty damn predictable. You’d have thought, in such circumstances, the anti-war left would have had something to say in the way of prevention.

Yet by and large, none of the people or organisations now so desperate to comment on what are, by any yardstick, serious, bloody events with huge consequences for the people of the Sahel region and beyond, had anything to say as, little by little over the summer months, the groups who had been fighting for territorial independence ceded ground and towns to those with more Jihadi aims, and it became clearer that the assault on human freedoms in Northern Malian desert towns would soon be in assaults in Central Mali.

In the end, I can’t help feeling that while what is happening now in Mali is actually quite welcome news for some on the left, who are happy to use it to reinforce their anti-imperial narrative or whatever, the energies and resources now devoted to commenting on the war, might have been better used more proactively few months ago.

Of course it’s a big ‘if’, but if leftie commentators, journos and politicos had been demanding answers from the government back in the summer about how it intended to deal with what was unfolding in Mali, then it might just have hit the Cabinet agenda, and it might just have kickstarted an international process of support for regional intervention. As it was, it was December by the time ECOWAS came to a tentative agreement on use of its regional forces to support the Malian government, and by that time it was too late; French military intelligence clearly saw both that the route South was open to the jihadists, and that the jihadists had the capability and desire to take that road, and that if it didn’t strike now Bamako itself would be under threat (of course it may still be, but in a different way).

Of course the anti-war left is not responsible for what’s going on now – Cameron and co must bear some responsibility for that given that we now know how well briefed they were, or at least should have been, on the likely consequences for its southern neighbours of a changed regime in Libya.

But if the anti-war left is going to get serious about anti-imperialism/promoting the long-term advisability of stopping these continued interventions – we can be sure enough there’ll be another one along in the non-too-distant future – it had better start by getting serious about its analysis.

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About the author
Paul Cotterill is a regular contributor, and blogs more regularly at Though Cowards Flinch, an established leftwing blog and emergent think-tank. He currently has fingers in more pies than he has fingers, including disability caselaw, childcare social enterprise, and cricket.
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Reader comments


If imperialism is external economic support for political violence, then the first place to look at is the reported £100 million that has been paid in ransoms to the most extreme of the Malian islamist groups over the past few years.

That’s not a trivial amount of money; more than you used to hear about being given to local forces in Iraq to maintain security, let alone off-the map african countries. It’s hardly surprising the groups receiving it were able to turn that external cash windfall into heavy weaponry sufficient to defeat and conquer the rest of the local populace. One thing they appear to have spent the cash on was hiring mercenaries made unemployed by recent events in Libya. But if it hadn’t been that, they’d likely have spent it on something else scarcely less destructive…

2. Chaise Guevara

@ soru

“If imperialism is external economic support for political violence, then the first place to look at is the reported £100 million that has been paid in ransoms to the most extreme of the Malian islamist groups over the past few years.”

If you can accuse people of imperialism because they handed over money to people who had their loved ones at gunpoint, your definition of the word is so wide it defies all usefulness. I’ve never heard such victim-blaming in all my days.

3. Closet Zionist

“… it had better start by getting serious about its analysis.”

Hmm. Like analysis that includes reference to AQIM as “Al Qaeda in the Middle East”.

The region in question is not the Middle East.

And the IM in AQIM stands for Islamic Maghreb.

4. Mary Coulthard

A huge blow to the UN which seems to have been bi-passed by the big six in favour of agreed spheres of influence with each more or less staying out of the other’s patch.

France has gone in despite there being no indication unlike with Benghazi that the people of the capital Bamako would not have been capable of seeing off the Islamist rebels. Their motives are always self-serving but they haven’t even bothered with any pretence on this occasion and if I was Malian I’d be worried given the record of French imperialism in Africa which in terms of brutality takes a back seat to nobody.

The French don’t piss about with UN Resolutions or ‘Dodgy Dossiers’ do they?

“The French don’t piss about with UN Resolutions”

– the action in Mali had full UN backing, actually.

if I was Malian I’d be worried given the record of French imperialism in Africa which in terms of brutality takes a back seat to nobody.

King Leopold would beg to differ. And the German record isn’t much to write home about either.

Whatever grubby machinations are going on around Mali, there must be a lot at stake.

Only a few weeks ago the French were refusing to come to the aid of the CAR government and the FT commented that “France is increasingly reluctant to intervene directly in conflicts in its former colonies. Since coming to power in May, Mr Hollande has promised to end the country’s shadowy relations with former colonies and put ties on a healthier footing.”

Hoho

I’m sceptical of whether a coherent “anti-war left” exists, or should exist – a one-size-fits-all approach to military intervention being a little unsophisticated.

The point that weapons from the conflict in Libya are fuelling the conflict in Mali, and this could and should have been foreseen, is valid whether you supported intervention in Libya or not. But global conflict is so much more fun if we can use it as the starting point for some political point-scoring…

PS @ClosetZionist – well, he *said* he was no expert :)

10. So Much for Subtlety

You’d have thought, in such circumstances, the anti-war left would have had something to say in the way of prevention. … In the end, I can’t help feeling that while what is happening now in Mali is actually quite welcome news for some on the left, who are happy to use it to reinforce their anti-imperial narrative or whatever, the energies and resources now devoted to commenting on the war, might have been better used more proactively few months ago.

Welcome to the Reality Based community. Of course the anti-War left is not anti-War. Of course they do not give a damn what happens in Mali. They are opposed to White people winning. Anything. They have never cared what non-White people do to each other. They went out on the streets to make sure America lost in Vietnam – either indifferent to the victory of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge or actively in favour of it. They protested Iraq hoping for an Al-Qaeda victory.

So why would they give a damn about Mali until the French became involved and their dislike of White people kicked in? It has nothing to do with the suffering of the people of Mali. It is all about the West being defeated.

But if the anti-war left is going to get serious about anti-imperialism/promoting the long-term advisability of stopping these continued interventions – we can be sure enough there’ll be another one along in the non-too-distant future – it had better start by getting serious about its analysis.

Why? Black Africans killing other Black Africans is not something they have ever cared about. What Tutsis did to Hutus in Burundi is so much a matter of indifference to the Left that I doubt anyone here has heard of it. But South Africa? That is a crime against humanity. The problem for the anti-War left is not the killing in Mali, it is the French intervention.

The major indictment of the anti-war left has to be the utter failure to stop any wars. Some might, of course, claim they prevented war in Syria (that is western participation in the war) but we know all this is Russia and China.

Ultimately this failure comes down to the inability to present a viable alternative forcefully enough. In the case of Iraq the incessant fear-mongering made this almost impossible despite wide-spread opposition. Fast-forward to Mali it seems the left can’t even be bothered to think of a coherant case against it, just the usual crowing about imperialism and resources and no mention of the barbarism of Ansar al-Din.
I’m not saying France’s motives are all pure, just that to oppose a war one needs to be honest about the ramifications.

I take issue with the claim that this crisis was created by NATO airstrikes in Libya. As it was Gaddafi who armed the Tuareg insurgents, wouldn’t the situation be even more fucked if he had won? Or if Libya had turned out like Syria?

12. Andrew Coates

Absolutely, indeed. As a subscriber to Le Monde Diplomatique (French edition) I had only a passing – but still there – awareness of this. Which, judging from what you can read on the Stop the War Coalition’s site, makes me an expert!

Now we’re seeing the hostage crisis develop in Algeria we are territory more familiar to at least some of us, that is the origins of Al-Qaida au Maghreb islamique in the Groupe salafiste pour la prédication et le combat(GSPC) and where that came from.

I made a somewhat similar point yesterday.

http://tendancecoatesy.wordpress.com/2013/01/16/mali-stop-the-war-coalition-gets-things-seriously-wrong-again/

@13: Ah yes, a fair cop. That’s cut and pasted from the April 12 piece so I’ve managed to make the same mistake twice. And to think I actually did know the difference, not least cos I lived in Algeria for a bit. But heh ho, you won’t believe me. i’ll get over it.

14. contradeorum

The Algerian hostage taking is revealing. It takes time to plan an attack like this and pull it off successfully. The reaction has been too swift for it to have been a spur of the moment decision. Therefore, it seems likely that AQIM knew that there would be an intervention in Mali some weeks ago, and that the western decision to intervene must also have been made some weeks ago. It also suggests, therefore, that AQ either has a good penetration of western intelligence services or (perhaps also) that they are being led into a killing field, with hostages as bait.

15. Lefty Tosser

The argument here makes no sense. So, the intervention in Libya to help rebel forces overthrow Gaddafi was bad, and this directly led to the violence in Mali at present (a dubious contrived premise to start with, but okay), and thanks to that…intervention was needed in Mali several months sooner?

Does he decide what interventions are needed at random?

Also, consider a parallel universe where intervention *did* occur several months earlier…why can I imagine this guy complaining in that universe that outside assistance will just lead to further violence?

He demands sensibility and clarity from the “anti-war” Left, and yet cannot articulate a coherent and cogent position that isn’t self-contradictory! (I supported both interventions for the reccord, the latest along with some 79% of Comment Is Free readers (so glad that Seamus Milne hasn’t melted every mind there), so don’t tell me a good amount of the British Left isn’t behind it).

A good article but all you do is fuel the egos of the far left who actually think they have something worthwhile to say and that people out there who want to listen to them.

A number of the countries mentioned lie across the fault line of religion that stretches across Africa roughly from southern Mauritania to northern Kenya where Islam meets Christianity and clashes.

The animosity goes back centuries and lies in the slave trade which the Arabs, Berbers and Ottomans used to underpin their economies and which flourished until stamped out by European armies and the Royal Navy in the late twentieth century.

The left has rediscovered imperialism and is busily dusting down all of the old tomes by Lenin and Trotsky to find out what to think and say. The problem they have is that it seems that the non Muslim populations of the countries involved are only too glad to have the Europeans back if the alternative is sharia law.

Expect to see the former colonial powers welcomed with open arms by these countries and communities especially as it is they who will be footing the bill.

17. contradeorum

And isn’t that just the point….

I remember a PR “kite flying’ exercise in the mid 1990s which was testing public opinion about the idea that global corporations should replace nation states as providers of security and social services (ie, the stuff that governments do), with a particular slant on “saving Africa” from itself. Seems a decision has been taken that the time has come to implement the programme.

Why do you say “anti-war left”? There’s no pro-war left, so why not just call it the left?


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