Posts Tagged ‘Taliban’

An Afghanistan scenario in Mali? Part 4 and conclusion.

September 13, 2021

Interrupted by a very severe malaria attack on this author and a missing laptop, hence the gap between Part 3 and this, the final installment. But here it is, at last.

I do not know how close the interpretation of Islam as espoused by the Taliban is to the majority of Afghans. In the case of Mali, though, I can safely say that while the majority of the country’s population is staunchly conservative, it cannot abide by Sharia Law. The cosmopolitan, spiritual, open, tolerant, flexible, family-run versions of Islam that prevail in West Africa are proving remarkably resilient under the sustained attacks from its poor, claustrophobic, rigid and backward cousin from the Middle East. The Gulf states plus the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia continue to throw a lot of their money – paid for by the rich world’s petrol addiction – into the impoverishment of West African Islam but it remains to be seen whether the investment is paying off, especially seen against the background of diminishing revenues from an increasingly tainted commodity: oil.

Besides, the choices African individuals and families make are often informed by pragmatism. I caught an early glimpse of this three decades ago in Southern Africa, where parents sent their children to Catholic or protestant schools, not because they were staunch adherents to these religions but simply because these schools often offered the best education. This pragmatism surely persists to this day.

Similarly, the lavishly funded mosques and their attached associations provide services others do not. This does not mean that every West African – is turning into a Wahabist Muslim…there is, for instance, still a reassuringly small number of fully veiled women out on the streets. They use the service provided and keep thinking their own thoughts. After all, one of my colleagues stated with laser beam precision and clarity what it is we are dealing with: “Make no mistake. The Islamic variant coming from the Gulf constitutes a full frontal assault on our African culture and values.” Reducing women to fully covered quasi-inanimate objects runs counter to traditions that are much older and have deeper roots. In my own book on Guinea, I mentioned the destruction of sacred statutes and masks in Guinea Forestière, in the name of Islam fighting false idols. The vandalism in Timbuktu springs to mind again, described by one elder as his city being robbed of its soul. One would like to believe that after the forced departure of most of the illiterate vandals it may get some of its soul back. 

A neighbourhood bar

In short, then: popular support for this strictest of interpretations of the faith is not happening, even though people take their faith very seriously. But they also value their ancestral roots and culture, traditional music, and certainly like to be left alone to pursue their way of life in ways they see fit. And that includes enjoying their drinks and worshipping their families, the indestructible cornerstone of West African life. 

No Taliban-style force will show up in the capital the minute the French leave, which they will do before too long. No bearded “fool of god” (copyright: my Malian friends) will reside in Koulouba, the presidential Palace on Power Hill in Bamako, no matter how ardently Iyad ag Ghaly desires this – and I continue to suspect that he will remain an ardent apostle of the true Faith until a better deal comes along and he may change tack yet again…

The much more fundamental problem, as the human rights veteran and UN expert Alioune Tine argues following a recent visit to Mali, is the problem of an absent state. With no formally recognisable structures visible, however colonial-alien-superimposed they may be, the upshot is that in their absence others have moved into this void. And those filling the void have been, by and large, armed gangs whose behaviour is frequently as atrocious as that of the state representatives (read: the armed forces), they have come to replace. In the first six months of this year, the UN mission to Mali has recorded almost 600 human rights violations. All of the groups I have mentioned in this series are involved. That is a hell of a lot for the population to take. And it is the women like the ones I spoke with in Fana and Ségou, the elderly, the children, who are most at risk. It is, says Tine, so bad that this proliferation of horror could precipitate the end of Mali as a state-run unified unit. You can argue that in some areas this is already the case. Gao, as close to the Wild West as you are likely to get at this point, gets its supplies from Algeria taken across the desert by experienced drivers who have deals with the gangs of bandits reigning in and around town. The situation may be replicated in other places. 

And this is the real menace to Mali. Not a lightning takeover by an insurgent force but a slow and inexorable decline, leaving Bamako and maybe a few other key cities as islands of relative safety and stability in an ocean of chaos. Are there solutions? Yes, and the most obvious one is unpalatable: turning the country into a federation, which could in fact make this ungovernable and frequently ungoverned space of 1.2 million square kilometres governable again, at least up to an extent. This reduces the influence of Bamako, shorthand for the place where all the money goes and where all political and military power players and influencers converge. And once you’re in, the place is sweet. This is why even the soldiers running the show today are disinclined to let federation and the concomitant decline of Bamako happen. 

But circumstances may force the hand of whoever is in power. After all, as I am hearing so often: the problem is not the North or the Centre, or the militias, or the jihadists. The problem is Bamako. Solve that, and you solve the insurgency. If ever this happens it will not be pretty. But it may well save the country, as it re-emerges in a different form. 

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 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.

Purity

July 3, 2016

Brexit on 23 June follows a trend across Europe, supposedly in response to the existence of an overweening and undemocratic European Union. (Very briefly: I do believe the EU suffers from hubris, I do believe the EU is in great danger of becoming a corporatist neoliberal venture for which it was never intended and of which the euro is the symbol. But I also believe that in spite of the urgent need to fundamentally reform the European Union the world is infinitely better off with one than without one.)

I want to go somewhere else with this piece. The trend across Europe and elsewhere in the western world is the arrival/re-appearance of nationalist and anti-migration movements. This is echoed in another trend, happening across the globe from West Africa to Southeast Asia.

One day before Brexit, the wonderful Pakistanti Qawwali singer Amjad Sabri was murdered by self-styled Islamic radicals in Karachi. Earlier this year the world witnessed the destruction of Palmyra by Islamic State (or ISIS), an act of vandalism rivalled by the blowing up of the Bamiyan statutes by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 and the vandalism perpetrated on Timbuktu by self-declared jihadist invaders in 2012.

What do they all have in common? I would argue: the idea of purity. Or, to put it better: nostalgia for purity, the illusion of purity. It never existed but they want it back.

The rhetoric is interchangeable. Prior to the referendum that returned the tragic Brexit vote, British nationalists talked about reducing immigration, taking back control from a monstrous – and what’s more: foreign – bureaucracy and return to the green and pleasant self-ruled lands of old times. Without too much interference from outside and even fewer migrants thank you very much. Elsewhere in Europe, extremist politicians talk about sovereignty, the need to curb immigration and to stop the EU. ‘I want my country back,’ is their rallying cry.

Sufi music is abhorrent to the Taliban because it pollutes the otherwise pristine and sweet unspoilt sound of prayer. Monuments and tombstones and artefacts make the mind of the beholder stray from the correct path of a blemish free faith where no idolatry takes place.

It is the illusion of purity: an unspoilt people, an unspoilt faith, the pristine English village, the Khalifate. That dream of purity can only be fulfilled through destruction and vandalism. What is tainted and unclean must be removed. Whether it’s a monument, music or an institution like the European Union. Sacrifice is unavoidable, even if it means putting an entire economy or a future generation in jeopardy. Purity requires the use of a wrecking ball. Brexit and the blowing up of monuments are two sides of the same coin.

***

None of this is new. But it has become more virulent and more aggressive of late and moves to counter it have been shockingly inept. Why? I believe that this is in part because of the overwhelming victory of globalisation and its attendant ideology (neoliberalism) and in part because of the total collapse of the countervailing progressive movement.

The Thatcher/Reagan revolution informed by the unfettered free market ideology peddled by the likes of Milton Friedman has been successful beyond its wildest dreams. It has reversed virtually everything that an organised and united people’s force fought for during a century and a half. Unions everywhere, anti-colonial movements everywhere. Today, neoliberalism is continuing the business of taking us collectively back to the 19th century. States have been rolled back, utilities that provide life-saving basic services  (water for instance, health care) have been or are being privatised, structural adjustment programs have ravaged economies from Latin America to Asia via huge chunks of Africa – the list is long. The very welcome demise of the dictatorial and inept Soviet Union and its European satellite states in 1989 cemented the Thatcher/Reagan victory.

The progressive movement has struggled to find an answer to this free market steamroller. Instead, it has adopted most of the steamroller’s principles (the main one being that Greed Is Good) and has been looking for a visage, something to mask the fact that it may look progressive but is the exact opposite. The visage was already present in its ranks and was eagerly adopted as its faux progressive front. It’s called identity politics.

Starting with second wave feminism in the late 1960s it has since morphed into a multitude of movements that have their own navel and their own victimhood as their unique focal points. They have rendered the old and lofty principle of international solidarity obsolete. To mask this simple fact, Diversity was invented, which incorporates (and I use this word deliberately) an in-crowd of people who all look different but who mostly and basically think the same thoughts. Progressive it is not: this movement has attached itself eagerly to the globalisation agenda. And as I have argued earlier, it is precisely for this reason that it fails to counter resurgent European nationalists, religious extremists and the other purity seekers. 

***

Purity is the reaction globalisation has engendered. Races should not mix. People should not mix. Cultures should not mix. Musics should not mix. Countries should not mix and most certainly not be “overseen” by some supranational busybody. It is telling to see that extreme rightwing groups in the United States combine utter hatred for the United Nations (another international bogeyman) with a stunning lack of knowledge about the organisation. Donald Trump is their champion and, as if to illustrate my point, the other presidential candidate is a shell for corporate America with a ghastly track record as former Secretary of State. I live in a region that has to deal with the atrocious fallout of the criminally catastrophic decision to oust Libyan dictator Muammar Ghadaffi (someone they were previously more than happy to do business with), of which Hillary Clinton was an active and enthusiastic supporter.

Because of the Left’s astonishing incompetence in reviving the forces of solidarity that used to cut across all identity lines (race, sex, sexual orientation and everything else) both forces – globalisation and the purity movements – will continue to run amok and crash into each other. The have-nots have been divided by identity politics and will not stand together again. It is curiously ironic that the likes of Brexit are driven by another type of identity politics, a variety the faux progressives disapprove of: rural, working class or former working class and (dare we day it) mostly white, subject to a condescending sneering campaign by those in possession of the correct identity politics. This has backfired spectacularly.

Brexit is a tragic mistake. Purity, be it racial, ideological or religious is a dangerous illusion. The progressive movement is dead and its faux progressive identity politics driven replacement an abysmal failure. We need something new. Maybe it is already there, unable to stop the steamroller but at least attempting to slow it down. New bold citizen-led movements show a way forward, like the one that removed autocrat Blaise Compaoré, then resisted a coup attempt by his presidential guard, and a new one, aimed to get genetically manipulated cotton removed. All three in Burkina Faso. We could do with a lot more like these.