It is only when it is too late, when all other options have been rejected, that we are asked to choose between bad and worse. Nine days after the 9/11 attacks, President George W Bush was already threatening that “either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” Two wars followed, first in Afghanistan, then Iraq, with the results we all know. In Mali, we are once again required to decide between two equally hateful alternatives. How can we resign ourselves to armed bands, who spread obscurantist ideology and practices, terrorising the people of the north, then threatening those in the south? But equally how can we ignore the fact that humanitarian motives and the criminalisation of political opponents (Afghan Taliban linked to the opium trade, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to cocaine dealing and hostage taking) are often a pretext for western military operations that smack of neo-colonialism?
It is nearly two years since Osama bin Laden died, but Al-Qaida lives on. The Taliban are doing better than ever. As former French prime minister Dominique de Villepin explains, “the open terrorist sores — Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Mali — tend to grow and form links with one another, join forces, combine in a number of actions” (1). So every western intervention seems to play into the hands of the most radical jihadist groups, who draw their opponents into endless, exhausting conflicts. Libyan weapons have been used in the war in Mali, and they may be recovered and used again on other fronts in Africa.
To justify his country’s military commitment, François Hollande announced that “France will always be there when it comes to the rights of a population, that of Mali, which wants to live in freedom and in a democracy.” Such an extravagant road map is bound to come up against the fact that the problem is not so much to “retake” northern Mali but to secure lasting peace there, with due regard to the legitimate claims of the Tuaregs.
And that is just the start. We will then need to worry about the various secret military alliances and the quasi disappearance of African borders. And to recognise that this was (and still is) encouraged by neoliberal solutions which have destroyed the credibility of states, reduced their farmers and soldiers to beggary, and encouraged the overexploitation of Africa’s mineral resources by western (or Chinese) companies. We will have to admit that the transnational trade in drugs, arms and hostages depends entirely on non-African suppliers and consumers. And to concede that the drop in world prices for cotton has ruined the peasants in Mali, and that global warming has exacerbated the drought in the Sahel.
This (incomplete) list of subjects that are normally of no interest to anyone suggests that any “liberation” of Mali by foreign forces would leave the root causes of the coming conflict intact. When it does come, we will be asked once again to “choose” — after being told, of course, that we no longer have any choice.