Posts Tagged ‘Afghanistan’

An Afghanistan scenario in Mali? Part 3

August 22, 2021

So the parallels, superficial or less so, between Mali and Afghanistan, have a limited shelf life. This is illustrated very well by Lyammouri’s assessment, which I share, that we are not going to see gun-toting turbaned men at the presidential palace (called Koulouba) on the Colline de Pouvoir, along the road to the military base at Kati. In fact, Koulouba’s current occupant is the colonel from Kati who took power a year ago, Assimi Goïta. And he shows no signs of departing. Mali’s decadent political class – propped up by the West – that brought the country to its current lamentable state was not removed by a religious insurgency, as happened in Kabul this week; they were kicked out by a popular movement followed by a coup. And what the people now want most of all from this military-dominated government is a return to security. And this is where things get really complicated.

Because there is not one dominant Islamic insurgency. When discussing religious insurrectionism in Afghanistan, talks are generally restricted to one word: Taliban. (Whether this is fair or not I don’t know.) Mali is home to a dizzyingly large number of outfits with guns that often fight each other, like the Al-Qaeda and Islamic State franchises (JNIM and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara) that have been at each others’ throats on and off for roughly two years. There are also any number of self-defined self-defence militias that attempt to secure their communities and then go out and attack other communities. Some of these attacks have been particularly bloody. We also have the old phenomenon of proxies. The Malian army has been working with them for decades and they have also been associated with Opération Barkhane in the border region with Niger and Bukina Faso, near the town of Ménaka.

But most of all, we have widespread and spreading banditry that can take the guise of any of these groups. It also happens that they throw away any and all pretence and just go after your stuff and your money. “Not a single road in and out of Gao is safe,” asserts a friend who lives there. And he cannot even properly describe the tit-for-tat killings going on there because he knows that some of these hired guns enjoy protection at the highest possible official level. And we just had the revelation of yet another scandal that implicates a private businessman and army personnel with the sale of arms to jihadist and/or self-defense units. Reports of hold-ups, break-ins, armed robberies and active gangs of highwaymen come in from all corners of the country. Mali is far less safe from folks with empty pockets, a propensity for crime – and, crucially, in possession of guns, mobile pones and motorbikes – than it was even three, four years ago.

If this is giving you vertigo, worry not. You are not the only one. Take a boat stroll on the calming waters of the eternal river.

Understand, then, that the simple “us” versus “them” scenario (“the single story”) that the media are so fond of and that is portrayed to be playing out in Afghanistan simply does not exist in Mali, which is why international media, by and large, igore this story. Too darn complicated.

The proliferation of armed groups – including those self-styled, self-professed and sometimes genuine jihadis – is the result of a collapsed state. State collapse did not happen overnight or in a blitz offensive by an insurrectionist army. It happened slowly, death by a thousand cuts, scandal after scandal after scandal. Bribes over here, reported by Malian journalists and blithely ignored by Mali’s so-called “partners” in development. (Thou shalt not speak ill of a donor darling.) The importation of unusable agriculture inputs with some well-connected traders getting rich and farmers left destitute and desperate. A drugs flight here. A deal with insurgents there. Kickbacks from lucrative negotiations for the release of Western hostages. Unvetted rebels like the one we met yesterday sent to diplomatic posts. And on and on it went. By the time, early 2012, that the MNLA made its ill-fated invasion and established its stillborn Azawad, the army had been demoralised to the point of immobility, the jihadists Algeria had tossed across its border ito Mali’s vast desert were already waiting in the wings as the state lay on its death bed. And yes, as always and everywhere, the poor and the vulnerable end up paying the highest price.

What is left of the state in Mali is kept in place by donor money and revenue from gold mines, all but one foreign-owned. It is kept safe principally by foreign troops that are on the way out. And in the meantime, it continues to rot from within. Nobody seems to care. The assault on the country by a bewildering array of armed groups continues and even though none of them will run this country (and certainly not under an Islamist extremist flag), the horror they visit on ordinary people continues unabated and goes unnoticed by the world at large. As if they do not even exist.

An Afghanistan scenario in Mali? Part 2

August 20, 2021

So, after foreign intervention and religious insurrectionism, there’s your third parallel between Afghanistan and Mali: a fatally weakened military. Both armies have been prone to demoralisation and bad practices, in spite of numerous and often intensive foreign interventions: training, drills, exercises, workshops…you name it.

The official website of the Malian Armed Forces

There is an excellent article in International Affairs (behind a paywall, unfortunately but you can at least read the abstract) on army “reforms” in Mali. They are supposed to take place and they could theoretically contribute towards returning the FAMa to their (historical) glory. In measured prose, the author lays out the non-dilemma: everyone knows the reforms are not working, everyone continues to pretend they do and in so doing they keep a lucrative and utterly pointless exercise up and running, while the situation remains as it is. To be fair, Mali’s army has a strong reputation among the population and is seen as a source of pride, which is why the military removal of the discredited political class hat presided over the demise of the FAMa was met with such widespread approval. However, the colonels now in charge must deliver on security and this has – so far – proved Mission Impossible, not in the last place because of this man.

From his latest video

This, ladies and gentlemen, is Iyad ag Ghaly, a colourful character with a chequered history that brought him in contact with the Libyan leader Gaddafi when the latter was busy financing rebellions across the continent. Ag Ghaly is said to have participated in some of the Great Libyan Leader’s armed incursions into neigbouring Chad. But he was also and already occupied with the struggle for an independent homeland for his people, the Tuaregs: Azawad. This brought him into contact with music and the mythical band Tinariwen, which aligned itself with the Tuareg cause, mostly through music. Ag Ghaly gave them money for musical instruments but he was never part of the band as some French media have suggested.

At this point, he was in Tripoli and led the life of the true rebel leader: drinking, dancing, clubbing, chasing girls. But that changed when after the Second Tuareg Rebellion in the 1990s (which ended with the famous foreign-sponsored Flame of Peace in Timbuktu, March 1996) he was integrated into Mali’s central government structures in Bamako and sent to the north of the country to help negotiate the liberation of Westerners taken hostage by ordinary criminals who would later re-emerge as…jihadists. Ag Ghaly knew most of these characters already.

It was at this point that he embarked on a slow but sure process of radicalisation, which was crowned by his encounters in Saudi Arabia (where he got a post as a diplomat) with the Pakistani zealots of Jamaat al-Tabligh. He returned from the Middle East a proper zealot and ready to…start another short-lived Tuareg rebellion. Opportunism is ag Ghaly’s middle name and it still remains to be seen whether the religious principles he has adopted are as resilient as his laser-precise instinct for survival.

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In sum, you have (and the list is not even exhaustive): religious radicalisation, the immensely complex and intricate Tuareg family and clan politics, Bamako politics, the Algerian secret service, the Algerian military, the criminally stupid operation that removed Gaddafi, more failed rebellions, money, alignment with former criminals from Algeria turning to jihad, the death or disappearance of some of these… and in all this the constant factor is ag Ghaly’s extremely adroit manoeuvring that made him, over time, the most prominent jihad chief in the country and the region. In the second decade of this century he became the nominal head of Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (Support Group for Islam and Muslims or JNIM), an Al Qaeda franchise that incorporates among others the MUJAO already mentioned and a hyper-active outfit called the Front for the Liberation of Macina, led by a fanatical priest from the centre of Mali, Amadou Koufa.

“Our time has come,” intones ag Ghaly in a video released six days before the Taliban victory. In his message he praises the bloody jihadist expansion in Mali and beyond, which has led to thousands of deaths and millions of refugees and internally displaced persons in Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and neighbours. He adds that he cannot be stopped and demands the departure of France, a notion that goes down very well with some radical circles in Bamako. I have covered some of their demonstrations and talked to the organisers.

Like his friend and ideological ally imam Mahmoud Dicko, Iyad ag Ghaly opportunistically combines a relish for Islamic rule and a dislike for Western-style democracy and mixes this into a potent highly conservative ideological cocktail. But, as the researcher and analyst Rida Lyammouri of the Rabat-based Policy Center for the New South argues, none of the armed Islamist extremist groups out there in the vast savannas have the rear bases, the numbers, the capacity or the popularity to rule. This is why they do not lay siege to the capital but terrorise poor defenceless villagers. And they do so with utterly depressing frequency: 15 soldiers dead in Mali, 80 soldiers and civilians dead according to latest count on August 20 in Burkina Faso, 137 dead in Niger – month after month after month. Ordinary women and men, working their land, going to market, sent to an invisible moving frontline, and mostly trying to mind their own business and wanting to be left in peace.

An Afghanistan scenario in Mali? Part 1

August 19, 2021

The August 16 Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has – supposedly – sent shockwaves through Mali. In fact, what was more on Malians’ mind was the first anniversary, the next day, of the coup d’état that ended a failed experiment in democracy that lasted a decade longer than America’s “longest war”.

Sure, in the many “grins” (pronounce this in French), the nighttime talking circles around cups of tea you see everywhere, the Taliban takeover will have come up for debate. But the subject will then have been followed by discussion about last year’s military takeover, the corrupt leftovers from the previous political era, the chances of Mali’s national soccer squad in the next African Championship…

We have been here before. When the “Arab Spring” happened (a historically illiterate moniker if ever there was one) we were told that “Africa” – yes, it’s always the ENTIRE continent – was waiting its turn, patiently, to have a stab at democracy, too. Never mind that popular movements against unpopular autocrats have been part of the political landscape since the 1960s and earlier, from South Africa to Burkina Faso (twice) by way of Zanzibar and…Mali, 1991.

So, Mali and Afghanistan, then. Are there no parallels between the two? Of course there are. But they need careful examination, rather than the hurried hackery of the easy comparison. Both countries have religious insurgencies on their hands, even though methods and status are widely different. The similarity is that Western powers have used the might of their military to blunder their way in and out of these situations, leaving some success in their wake and a lot of damage. The US Army, the French Opération Barkhane – both of which are in the process of being dismantled after 20 years and 8 years respectively – have been employed to tackle issues that were either non-existent or tagged on the original mission for good measure. In many parts of the receiving countries, they will largely be remembered for drone strikes on wedding parties.

The US invasion was the result of 9/11; the French invasion was the result of an armed jihadist outfit crossing a red line and threatening Bamako, the capital city. The US got its attacker in the end; the French chased away the menace. Both suffered mission creep and engaged in things they should have left to the people living there. The pretence that you can bomb a country into becoming a nation, for instance. Now, presidents Biden and Macron must paper over the multiple cracks left behind by their policy wonks with the kind of smooth rhetoric both are very good at.

The French and US operations tagged lots of partners along, from NATO to the EU to individual states including my country, The Netherlands and, of course, the bewildering alphabet soup of NGOs wanting a piece of the action. Their presence illustrated more than anything else the intimate links, pioneered by France in Biafra, between the civilising mission that NGOs have become to personify and brutal military action. Mali became the scene of MINUSMA, the UN multidimensional integrated stabilisation mission, one of the deadliest UN operations in the history of the organisation. MINUSMA has clear nation building pretenses, even though there is no peace to keep or enforce, nothing to stabilise and the dying is mainly done by African troops, in the best colonial traditions.

When it comes to pretenses, the other protagonists are pretty serious about one thing and here’s a second parallel between the two countries: the religious insurgents in Central Asia and the Sahel have as their goal to establish Sharia Law in the areas they control. Now that the Taliban are back in power in Afghanistan, their brutal rule from 1996 to 2001 is the obvious reference and the first signs do not look good. Jihadist vandalism in places like Bâmiân and Timbuktu leaves no illusions of how Islamic extremists treat the culture and traditions of the areas they occupy or colonise. Let alone the people…

The original attraction of jihadist rule is that it restores order. This happened, for instance, when one such group (called MUJAO, Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa) removed the thieving looting unruly rebels of the Tuareg rebels of the MNLA from the remote town of Gao in 2012. But the new Islamist order soon solidified into asphyxiating oppression – and the people of Gao took to the streets again. Any imposition of Sharia Law in Mali will prove deeply unpopular and I do not get the impression that the idea is universally shared in Afghanistan either.

Are they lurking on the other side? This is the Djoliba; it runs through Bamako and past Ségou, Timbuktu and Gao. In Ségou, they are said to be “just behind the river”. I never saw them. In Timbuktu and Gao they are hiding among the population. Mali’s sole artery has become a dangerous place, a haven for bandits instead of a prospering waterway.

Sure, Malians profess support for Sharia Law and applaud the Taliban takeover – on that most modern of communication vehicles: social media. Facebook messages are blindly copied and shared. None of this sharing makes you any the wiser about what a country run by the Taliban actually looks and feels like. The pro-Taliban position in the capitals around the Sahel is much better explained by a profound and widespread detestation of everything Western, in particular, France. Opération Barkhane is seen as an occupying force, although not necessarily by the people living in the North. They know, from experience, that the presence of foreign troops is some guarantee that Mali’s national army will behave itself.

Mali’s army, FAMa, is an inheritor of a long and proud military tradition that has been thrown to the dogs during the democratic era, when successive presidents sought and succeeded to divide and corrupt it. This is not to say that there have not been excesses before; the ultra-violent suppression of the first Tuareg insurrection after Independence (1963-64) has left deep scars in the soul of a nascent nation, which have never received proper treatment. But the rapid decay in morale and resources – the direct cause for the 2012 and the 2020 coups – happened during the era of democracy, while the international donor community held its nose, looked the other way and praised the country to the heavens while pretending nothing was amiss as the rot set in.

part 2 tomorrow.

OK, I have read his book so you won’t have to…

August 5, 2020

Pic retrived from marketwatch.com

John Bolton is a self-important bore who takes some 450 pages (almost 600 with notes and references) to drone on and on about how he is always right. Between April 2018 and September 2019 he was the national security advisor for a man who also thinks he is always right, president Donald Trump. A clash would seem inevitable. There were a few of them, as there were near-calamitous diplomatic near-misses. In the hands of an able writer this would have made very juicy reading but in Bolton’s clunky, plodding policy wonk prose it becomes a drag. You’re wading through what are essentially rememorised notes.

So why write about this at all?

Well, in spite of the fact that he is and remains a warmongering self-aggrandising hawk who firmly believes in regime change for some and bombing any country that takes a different view of the world than the Great US of A, his inside account gives us the strongest arguments yet for ejecting the narcissistic toddler currently occupying the White House at the earliest opportunity.

Having said that, the two men do share an abhorrence of world order and the institutions or organisations working towards that goal, including the International Criminal Court, the United Nations and its affiliated organisations like the World Health Organisation. They don’t like the EU much either but then I’m currently none too happy about where it is going… (Incidentally, they also share a deep hostility for the Fourth Estate; Bolton’s disdain for the press is palpable throughout his book.)

What they prefer is US-led global anarchy, where they set the rules. However, Bolton is far more systematic about this, which makes him the most dangerous of the two. Bolton wants regime change in Iran (he is worryingly obsessed with it), reign in China and contain Russia. In that order. As an aside and contrary to what many seem to think, he considers Syria “a sideshow”. Which from an inside-the-Beltway perspective it most assuredly is, like Africa. Yes, all of it.

And what is Trump on about, when he does not ramble about anything and everything? Three things stand out: money, deals and image. Raise any policy issue and he is likely to ask, like the New York real estate hustler he has always been: how much does it cost and what’s in it for me? That is exactly the mentality he has brought into the Oval Office. It should surprise no-one but since Bolton is a stickler for detail it’s useful to have this on public record in the sharp and unforgiving tones it deserves.

Money is at the root of his endless questioning: why are we in (Korea, Germany, Poland, Africa, Afghanistan…) Korea should pay for US military presence. He confuses a percentage of a nation’s GDP spent on national defence with contributions to NATO. On and on it goes. Trump is about as childishly and predictably unpredictable as Bolton is boring.

When it comes to China and North Korea it’s all about making deals. The greatest deal in history. Wonderful deals. When the United States withdrew from the agreement that bound Iran to limit its nuclear activities, Trump justified withdrawal because it was “a terrible deal.” Worst deal ever. This is not a president in action; it’s a New York real estate hustler.

And looking good is paramount. Photo-opportunity with North Korea’s strongman Kim Jung Un on the border between the two Koreas? Brilliant! Especially when you can get your venal and conniving family in on the picture: the shadow government of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner that Bolton hints at should scare the bejezus out of anyone with an ounce of understanding about how to run a country. Inviting the Taliban to the White House for talks? Great photo opportunity! And relations with China hinge on Trump’s great “personal relationship” with president Xi Jingpin, especially when Trump tells him that putting Uighurs away in concentration camps is a very good idea. The only thing that’s really terrible about China is the US trade deficit, the mechanics of which he does not understand.

Pic retrieved from 9and10news.com

Sucking up to autocrats is a particular character trait of Trump’s. He’s perfectly fine in the company of the likes I already mentioned, plus president Erdoĝan of Turkey and of course Vladimir Putin, even though I never get the impression from this book that he is what some simple minds refer to as ‘a Kremlin asset’. Trump likes dictators and wants to be one, simples. Unfortunately for him, he lives in a democracy that has so far proved remarkably resilient in spite of his efforts. Bolton likes Putin because he’s articulate (unlike his boss), on top of things (unlike his boss), and secure in his own role on the global stage. But make no mistake: Russia remains the enemy.

Bolton’s descriptions of his numerous meetings with the president of the United States show a man with the attention span of half a goldfish. In one, on Afghanistan, Trump manages to jump from that country to CNN reporters (unsurprisingly, he is in favour of shooting or jailing journalists), getting out of Africa (again), NATO and money (again), Ukraine, troops in Poland, calling North Korea’s Kim “a psycho” (Bolton agrees), South Korea paying 5 billion dollars for US military bases, the 38 billion dollar trade deficit with South Korea, getting all American troops out of Europe and announcing he was going to call the Indian Prime Minister about Kashmir. Bolton does not supply a time-frame but given the average length of security/foreign policy meetings this typical Trumpian ‘rolling on’, as Bolton calls it, may have occurred within, say, 30 minutes. Every single meeting goes like this.

These scenes aside, most of his tome consists of endless accounts of the bureaucratic infighting Washinghton is notorious for, trips abroad, and preventing Trump causing major international mayhem…always and forever framed in the glowing terms of the national security advisor’s infinitely superior intellect. Which makes it even more of a drag to read. (I told you I read his book so you won’t have to.)

This is probably Bolton’s last shot. He is unlikely to be hired ever again after having hung out some of Washington’s dirty linen and I for one think that the world’s a safer place because of it. Whether or not he should have made his revelations about Trump abusing his office for personal gain available to Congress will remain up for debate, probably forever.

In sum, then, yes, the White House chaos is there and it’s Trump’s chaos. Bolton’s descriptions make it clear that however bad you thought it was, it’s actually worse. Take that together with his autocratic tendencies, his tantrums and his narcissism and it becomes clear that even though the alternative is not exactly palatable this Orange Squatter should be out on his ear, come November. Here’s hoping that president Biden leaves Africa as much alone as did his predecessor; we have enough trouble here without the US sticking its oar in.