“The war against terror,” Gore Vidal chided, “is like the war against dandruff.” And the endless dandruff now seems to have spread to the landlocked West African country of Mali. The question for the financially struggling United States and its equally cash-strapped European allies is this: Will Mali become our next Viet-ghanistan?
France has sent troops into the independent state (pop. 13.8 million)-once a French colony-to battle radical Islamist fighters who have taken over Mali’s vast northern desert area. The French have returned to bolster weak defense efforts by the Mali military-which has operated a suppressive dictatorship in the south since a March 2012 coup-while the radical Islamists control with oppression in the north.
Actually the Europeans’ problem-including France’s-with West African rebellion began, not with radical Islamists, but with the Tuareg: a nomadic people who for centuries have lived in the expansive Sahara Desert, including areas of Mali, Niger, Algeria and Libya. The Tuareg has considered the area one living space. But the Europeans forcefully divided it up, making the Tuareg citizens of several nations. They haven’t liked that, and have rebelled consistently since the 1960s. In 2007, Tuareg rebels fought unsuccessfully to gain control of Niger’s lucrative uranium deposits.
In Mali, Tuareg leaders have said they won’t oppose the radical Islamists unless they turn and reach some kind of cooperation with the invading French and U.S.
Which leads us to this question: Why should Paris care to get involved in a former now-independent colony’s current conflict? Well, France has been greedy since the 16th century to grab its share of West African natural resources, ranging from food products to gold to slaves. Mali remains the third largest producer of gold in the African continent, a product of growing desire internationally, but of little good to the Mali economy itself because foreign companies control the gold interests and operate the mines and distribution.
The world’s central banks are looking now to protect their gold, primarily because they’ve continued to print paper money that’s becoming less and less valuable, and sooner or later will have to require a stable bullion source to brace themselves in the growing currency war. As an example, the German court recently demanded the Bundesbank account for its gold supply, and the bank in turn called on the U.S. to return the German gold it’s been holding. Just part of a gold maneuvering international process that could get really sloppy, and even lead to national conflicts.
So gold seems to be growing more valuable in the global eye, and Mali has an exploitative supply of it.
But other natural resources remain in play, too.
France began its Mali military intervention in January of this year with air strikes and then land troops. Militants retaliated by seizing hostages and an internationally operated gas field in Mali’s neighbor Algeria.
We just spoke of the 2007 Tuareg effort to control Niger’s uranium. Niger’s another Mali neighbor, which always seems to draw U.S. interest if our troops are in the area, and we seem to be everywhere these days.
So, you see, while Mali and its neighboring states are allegedly independent, their natural resources are controlled by multinational corporations. Rebels, including but not limited to radical Islamists, are very aware of their own history of enslavement, and who’s currently running the natural-resource pipeline.
United States Involvement
If you’re not a history buff, we’ll just remind you of three points about the U.S. invasion of South Vietnam in the 1960s: (1) France preceded us there. (2) Both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson warned we had to be there because of the alleged “domino effect”: if Vietnam falls, all of Southeast Asia could fall. (3) It was a war we could never win.
Now, think about those points regarding U.S. invasion policy in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Iran.
Okay, now let’s look briefly at the U.S. and its policy in Mali and West Africa:
As much as 10 years before the March 2012 military coup and radical rebellion in Mali, the U.S. state and defense departments had run counter-terrorism operations in Mali. The Washington Post details them here.
Long story short, the U.S. feared radical Islamist fighters would exodus Afghanistan and settle in northern Mali. And guess who would drive them out of Aghanistan?
So, we began sending special forces in to train Mali military-as we had in Vietnam and Afghanistan, etc.-in the early 2000s. We also spent about $45 million from 2004-08 for defense projects and other aid. Then pumped it up to $461 million in good will for “good governance, economic freedom, and investing in their citizens” as a part of the U.S. Millennium Challenge from 2006 to 2012.
Meanwhile, the World Bank reports that 9 out of 10 people in Mali live in dire poverty, with 72% of the population having less than a dollar a day to live on.
The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus in his Jan. 16 column asks what went wrong with the U.S. counter-terrorism effort, and suggests Congress should look into it. A practical question and suggestion.
And the war drumbeat goes on. In June of last year, the Army Times announced that a brigade of 3,000 soldiers “and likely more” would deploy to Africa this year “in a pilot program that assigns brigades on a rotational basis to regions around the globe.” The article added:
…U.S. Army Africa will continue to strengthen ties with regional militaries and governments by teaching military tactics, medicine and logistics, as well as combating famine, disease and terrorism in secure environments. The Army currently allows conventional soldiers to enter only 46 of the 54 African states due to security risks.
The top U.S. military commander in Africa warned Monday against any premature military action in Mali, even as he said that al-Qaida linked extremists have strengthened their hold on the northern part of the country.
Army Gen. Carter Ham said that any military intervention done now would likely fail and would set the precarious situation there back “even farther than they are today.”
But Ham also expressed concern about cooperative efforts among radical groups:
Ham’s comments provided greater public detail on the worrisome coordination between al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which bases its operations in Mali, and the radical Islamist sect Boko Haram, which is based in Nigeria. The growing linkage between the terror groups, Ham said, poses the greatest threat to the region.
The Washington Post reported on Feb. 22 that President Obama had announced that “about 100 U.S. troops have been deployed to the West African country of Niger, where defense officials said they are setting up a drone base to spy on al-Qaeda fighters in the Sahara.”
Reuters last Monday revealed:
The United States is likely to eventually resume direct support for Mali’s military, but only after full restoration of democracy through elections, the head of a visiting U.S. Congress delegation said on Monday.
Senator Christopher Coons, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Africa, was leading the first American congressional visit to the West African nation since France sent a military force there last month to halt an offensive by al Qaeda-allied insurgents.
Will Mali become our next Viet-ghanistan?