I probably wouldn’t have admitted this 11 years ago as an undergraduate anti-war activist: The French government made the right call in sending troops to Northern Mali. But I wouldn’t have acknowledged it then for myriad reasons, like educational gaps, shortsighted groupthink, leftist naïveté and self-righteous paternalism. And I would have been wrong.
Like other true believers, leftwing activists are sometimes willing to sacrifice people to ideological purity. And this is one of those times.
At socialist website Liberation, Eugene Puryear penned a column with the headline, “Oppose the Neocolonial French Intervention in Mali!” And likeminded magazine Socialist Alternative insists that French involvement will “amplify the chaos.” Both nod to the history of colonialism in the area without much detail or explanation, as if colonial history is an explanation in itself.
Even the moderate left has jumped on the bandwagon. At Democracy Now!, Emira Woods of the Institute for Policy Studies provides a misleading account of the conflict. Her argument rests on three key points, all of which must be addressed: They’re plausible—and dangerous—because there’s a kernel of truth in them.
First, she implies that the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIB) is not a significant player in the region, contesting the dominant narrative in both Western and African media outlets. Sure, she recognizes there are a few extremist elements in the area, but she implies that they’re pretty inconsequential. Here’s what’s true about that assertion: AQIB is not the only group that opposes Mali’s government in Bamako. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter.
In fact, there are three main opposition groups linked to Islamist extremism: AQIM, Ansar Dine and MUJWA. Andrew Lebovich of the New American Foundation provides helpful context in his new series at Jihadica: AQIM, which became an affiliate of al-Qaeda in 2007, is the wealthiest extremist group in the area. Lebovich says the group has accumulated “an estimated tens of millions of dollars in ransom payments (more, according to some sources)—money reportedly bolstered by income from cigarette smuggling and taxes from the region’s growing drug trade.” Mokhtar Belmokhtar, one of the men believed to be leading the rebellion in Northern Mali, has an extensive history with AQIB, and the group has controlled Timbuktu since April, making them a key player in the unfolding conflict.
The other militant groups, Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), originated in and around Northern Mali. They assisted AQIB in its April bid for control of Northern Mali and set up what they called the Independent State of Azawad. There, they imposed a draconian version of Sharia law that brought stoning and amputation to Northern Mali. More than 200,000 people were displaced by April. Meanwhile, they began destroying Timbuktu’s ancient relics, targeting the city’s more than 700,000 ancient manuscripts across 60 libraries.
Woods’ second erroneous claim is that the conflict is just an innocent bid for self-determination by the longsuffering people of Northern Mali. The involvement of three militant Islamist groups belies this claim, but again, there is an ounce of truth in it. That’s because the al-Qaeda backed assault on Northern Mali was originally backed by Tuareg separatists in the north who have been fighting oppressive policies from Bamako for decades.
Called the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the group turned to al-Qaeda in 2012 for assistance with their independence bid. They started out as the primary resistance force in Mali, but were sidelined by the wealthier Islamist groups.
But things are always more complicated than that, and it’s impossible to suggest that the Islamists and the Tuareg separatists are two completely distinct constituencies. There is more overlap than that. Ansar Dine, for example, is a predominantly Tuareg group. More than the other two Islamist groups, it stresses Tuareg liberation in rhetoric that links self-determination with Islamist nationalism.
The MNLA itself is divided. When Islamist groups established dominance in April, tension between mainstream the MNLA and Islamist groups erupted. In June, the MNLA organized a military assault on the Islamist rebels—for that, the Islamist groups doled out harsh punishment against the Tuareg rebels, alleging Sharia violation.
This may have started with a relatively innocent bid for self-determination by a long-marginalized minority group, but it has since ballooned into something altogether different. Now it’s an unmitigated mess.
Finally, Woods’ third misstatement: She insists that French involvement is a self-interested bid for control of the region’s uranium.
This is one of those moments in which two seemingly opposed things are both true: France is self-interested, and it’s also right to intervene. Once in a while self-interest converges with the right thing to do.
France hopes to stamp out the growth of al-Qaeda to prevent it from gaining influence in the region and within its own borders, and it has an economic stake in the future of Mali—namely in the country’s uranium reserves. These are points of fact, but again, they do not negate the case for intervention.
Of course France isn’t motivated by pure compassion in Mali, one of their former colonial holdings. Sometimes true believing interventionists like Samantha Power and Anne-Marie Slaughter overstate the humanitarian component of missions like this one—and forget that postcolonial context matters. There is a humanitarian crisis in Mali, but pundits like Power and Slaughter are suspiciously reluctant to address anything else. They’re beholden to another dogma: Interventionism in service of the international human rights regime. But their short-sightedness doesn’t mean that interventionism is always wrong.
The left is not wrong to insist that meddling will always carry neocolonial undertones. It’s not that there’s nothing problematic about the intervention. But policymaking requires countries to weigh a range of bad options, and decide which one is least bad. They do this in an international system marked by disparities in power and wealth—and haunted by memories of past violence and oppression, including a colonial system that lasted into the late twentieth century in parts of Africa.
The rise of al-Qaeda in Mali is not only a threat to French and Malian security interests. It’s also a problem for which France is partly to blame. Colonial powers drew Mali’s map—indeed, they drew Africa’s map—with no regard for existing groups such as the Tuareg, who are dispersed throughout Northern and West Africa. The people of Mali divided by cultural and ethnic distinctions that were long exploited by French colonial rulers bent on establishing economic dominance. Their strategy? Fomenting and exacerbating existing political and cultural divisions in the country.
It’s not that Mali’s diverse groups lived in pastoral harmony before colonialism—and indeed, suggesting this would amount to romantic orientalism. But colonialism made the divisions more entrenched. The French pursued this tactic not only in Mali, but throughout their Northern and West African holdings. They also have a long history of propping up repressive dictators in the region.
At Al Jazeera English, historian Mark Levine provides a helpful history of the emergence of radical Islamist groups in Northern Africa and the Sahel. He suggests that the current Islamist groups in Northern Mali were born of postcolonial pushback against repressive governance in Algeria.
That vexed history complicates policy decisions to this day. The French supported Ben Ali against the 2011 democratic uprising that led to his ouster in Tunisia. Then, irrespective of the need for intervention in Libya, the 2012 ouster of Gaddafi sent the former dictator’s cache of weapons across borders to Tuareg and al-Qaeda-linked opposition groups in Northern Mali. Now al-Qaeda is trying to take Bamako.
And that’s just the abridged account of the chaos the French government helped unleash in Northern Mali recently. France arguably owes it to Mali to help right some of the damage it’s done. This mission won’t fix everything. It won’t rectify Mali’s history of Tuareg repression. It won’t serve a democratic uprising in Mali. It won’t convince the government in Bamako to consider democratic reforms. It’s a simple mission, absent the triumphalism of past French engagement on the continent: Stop al-Qaeda and its extremist allies.
Over and over, in every media outlet in the world, the people of Mali have expressed near unanimous support for the French mission. When we insist that they’ve all got it wrong, we treat Malians with the same paternalism we think we’re fighting. We want them to fit into our nice leftist understanding of the world, in which there are clear “good guys” and “bad guys,” and power is a top-down, easily traceable construct.
But there is no post-postcolonial world coming. International actors, like people, learn to figure out what works best in a world that gives us not purity, but troubling possibilities. No one is innocent.
Again, people in Mali almost uniformly support French intervention at this moment. It’s a fraught and deeply disturbing solution, and already there are signs that it’s going to be harder than France realized.
But trust that the people squawking about paternalism are surely among the most egregious offenders right now. Are Malians adults who can make informed decisions about their own country? Or are they the children of colonial imagination? Too many on the left—a left that I have always identified with—have chosen the latter. This is where we part ways. People are more important than dogma in any moral rendering recognizable to me.