Commentary: Vive La France

Special to McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 22, 2013 

Across the vast Sahara Desert in Northern Mali, as well as in the neighboring countries of Chad, Niger, Mauretania and Algeria, millions of people are cheering openly or in secret at the French aircraft smashing down Islamists since Jan 11.

The Islamists are with Ansar Dine and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. They are hand and foot choppers. Serial rapists under the guise of quickie forced marriages. Destroyer of peaceful Sufi Muslim shrines that stood for 500 years in Timbuktu. They seized Northern Mali last April.

Now they face the silvery warplanes of France after nearly a year of Hamlet-like hesitation by the militaries of the United States, regional African countries and Europe — all reluctant to intervene.

We’ve seen this kind of desert war against guerrillas before. In the 1980s, U.S.-armed Moroccan troops took to the field against Algerian-backed Polisario rebels from Western Sahara. And it was quick and effective. Polisario herded nearly 100,000 camel herders and other civilians from the Western Sahara into camps in Algeria and then launched a guerrilla war to seize control of the desert region. Morocco – which had occupied the region after Spain left in 1976 – used its U.S.-built jets to push them back.

The F-5 jets remained on constant alert, prowling the desert in search of the Polisario who – like the Ansar Dine rebels of today – had only four wheel drive pickup trucks, Kalashnikovs and rocket propelled grenades. That was enough to seize the arid northern part of Mali – nearly the size of France –, drive more than 400,000 Malians into refugee camps and threaten last week to seize the remaining portions of Mali. But not enough to fight Western air power.

After nine months of hand-wringing over the Islamist takeover of a vast region that had become a magnet to terrorists, the French President Francois Hollande sent in the French Air Force.

In a matter of hours things went very badly for the arrogant and brutal Islamists, who stone people and whip them for smoking cigarettes, listening to music, speaking to a member of the opposite sex or refusing to join their crusade.

Malian military sources told reporters more than 100 Islamist bodies were strewn over the ground in the towns it had held with an iron fist the day before: Konna, and Gao.

Now the regional countries of West Africa have ended the silly talk of needing months to train and equip a security force to help Mali restore its democracy and end the Islamist threat. That sort of delay in 1994 allowed Hutu murderers in Rwanda to massacre 800,000 Tutsis while U.S. officials dithered about needing weeks to repaint armored vehicles darker green.

The whole situation is an embarrassment to global efforts to prevent the creation of a terrorist homeland in the Maghreb. Remember Afghanistan under Taliban rule? It had become the Harvard University for global terror with killers from around the world going there to learn bombing, propaganda, counter-interrogation and other deadly tactics.

Now Northern Mali has become a branch of that university. Terrorists from Nigeria, Algeria, Libya and other countries flock to the liberated zone to hone their skills.

And much of the operation was funded by nearly $100 million in ransoms paid by France, Germany and other European nations to free hostages seized by the Islamists. These were aid workers in Mali, tourists in Niger, engineers working at mines, diplomats and exchange students. Although the United States refused to pay ransoms, the Europeans – up till now – have quietly paid up.

As soon as the French launched their planes, the Islamists threatened to kill the dozen or so European hostages they still hold. The threat did not weaken French resolve and the Dassault Rafale fighters continued their assault. While several hundred special operations French troops have been sighted in Mali, Paris maintains it will lead from the sky and not put French boots on the ground. It wants Mali to get its army back in shape – it collapsed under Islamist attack in March and then low ranking officers ousted the Mali civilian regime in Bamako.

The pitiful truth of the Islamist victory is that although the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) spent more than $500 million in recent years to train African troops in counter-terrorism, and provided some intelligence and equipment, it was no help in either predicting or preventing the coup or the Islamist takeover. Indeed, the Malian army captain Amadou Sanogo, who seized power and still runs Mali, was brought to the U.S. for training several times. It was hoped he would notice that civilians run the United States. Nevertheless, he ousted the elected civilian government of Mali, which had been widely respected as an African success in implementing civilian, democratic rule.

I recall visiting Mali as a reporter covering then Secretary of State Colin Powell. He reviewed the troops splendidly decked out with flags and shiny boots. Those troops proved unable to defend their fellow citizens when the Islamists invaded. The Mali troops proved a greater threat to democracy than Powell imagined.

The U.S. AFRICOM trainers made a huge error in providing leadership training to ethnic Tuareg officers, the Berber nomads who roam the Sahara and are widely feared by black sub-Saharan people for their history of slave-holding and for the widespread Arab and Berber feeling they are superior to the blacks of the southern Sahel and the rest of Africa.

These Tuareg officers quickly defected to rebel Tuaregs who had once been mercenaries in Moammar Gadhafi’s army in Libya. Unfortunately, the Tuaregs – like the well-meaning liberal revolutionaries in Iran, Nicaragua, Soviet Russia, France and Cuba -- soon found themselves eclipsed from power by ruthless hardliners – in this case the Islamists of Al Qaeda and Ansar Dine.

When I read that 400,000 people had fled their homes in northern Mali, I at first could scarcely believe so many people could live in the arid Sahara. Then I realized that if so many flee, the Islamists had set up a horror show of a regime, one that shocks not only my liberal Western sympathies but also those of the poor residents of one of the world’s poorest countries.

If they flee with their few possessions to live under a tarp in Niger, we Westerners are not alone in abhorring the industrial-strength monsters riding the desert with heroic cartridge belts slung over their shoulders.

The path from now is clear:

  • African neighbors in Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Senegal, etc. must immediately send troops – by bus if necessary – to assist Malians in ousting the Islamists.

  • Mali’s junta leaders must stand aside and obey the civilian leadership.

  • Physically-fit volunteers must be recruited from the hundreds of thousands of refugees. They can supply logistics to the fighting forces and later be trained and join the fighters.

  • All foreign fighters captured in Northern Mali should be extensively interrogated to unravel their roots so that we can halt the merciless attacks on Christians and others in Northern Nigeria by Boko Hram and in other countries by similar groups.

  • Algeria, Morocco Mauretania and other countries encircling the Sahara should meet to organize common defenses, intelligence and sharing of information on these groups lest they once more pick put the weakest link and set up shop.

  • The United States has pledged $27 million as part of $64 million in refugee aid. Let’s be sure those funds continue to provide relief.

    Finally, there remains the unfinished business of perhaps 75,000 Saharan refugees still trapped in refugee camps in Algeria. Recently, Islamists within those camps captured volunteer European aid workers to try and get ransom money. Let’s disband the camps, send the people back home to Moroccan-ruled Western Sahara, disarm the Polisario, and let people in the Western Sahara use the ballot box to try and redress their grievances. Thirty years living in the desert as refugees is enough.

    ABOUT THE WRITER

    Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor, Salon.com, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book — GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work at play and at war — is to be published in 2013 by de-MO.org. He can be reached at benbarber2@hotmail.com.

    McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.

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