Lesson From History For The Mayhem In Mali

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    While much of Africa is going through something of an economic renaissance of late, the North African country of Mali serves as a reminder that in some places the continent’s endemic security problems rage on unabated. Indeed, Mali’s troubles, which as this goes to press now includes French military intervention complete with airstrikes and ground troops, is representative of the type of developing-world conflict that has become depressingly familiar to interested observers.

    The French justification for their intervention, as noted by Glenn Greenwald, is cloaked in the same anti-terrorism rhetoric that has become de rigueur here in the United States. “The president is totally determined that we must eradicate these terrorists who threaten the security of Mali, our own country and Europe,” proclaimed French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian — heroically stating that the French must fight them there so they don’t have to fight them in the banlieues of Paris. France, then, is once again picking up the white man’s burden of the the mission civilisatrice by bringing order, liberalism and western progress to a backward, benighted, far-away land.

    The current round of fighting, however, has its roots, like most post-colonial conflicts, in inter-ethnic group squabbles over power, wealth and autonomy where control over the central government by one’s identity group ensures survival and prosperity. Victors in these winner-take-all contests generally get everything, whereas the losers are remanded to the fringes of national economic and political life, if not eliminated altogether. While the current fighting is widely blamed on fallout from the Libyan Revolution and its subsequent spillover of arms and Islamic militants into Northern Mali, the conflict is actually only the latest round in an on-again, off-again civil war in a state that failed a long time ago.

    In countries like Mali, where too many ethnic groups were pushed together into countries whose borders were determined by Western imperialism — in this case the product of an earlier episode of French mission civilisatrice; grinding poverty, a paucity of resources and the ease with which tribal loyalties can be stirred up by amoral, power-seeking politicians, makes politics — whether democratic or authoritarian – a high-stakes, dangerous contest. Very often there is little or no trust between contending ethnic groups in these places, a situation made irredeemably worse by systemic corruption that eats away at the capacity of even well-meaning officials to provide security, foster development and create the conditions necessary for modern life to occur.


    Problems of post-colonialism

    In many respects countries like Mali should have never, in their current configuration, become “countries” to begin with. They lack nearly everything required for successful self-governance and mostly rely on the sufferance of rich, outside patrons that provide assistance mainly to further their own economic and political interests. That is not to say colonialism was any better, but the succession of coups, authoritarian governments and armed rebellions that consistently destroy any hope people living in these countries have for a better collective future is testimony to their deep dysfunction. They are, put plainly, a danger both to their own people and neighboring countries – as recently demonstrated in Algeria.

    So, what can the international community do to help these development black holes? History, unfortunately, offers only a problematic guide.

    In the old days, states that could neither control their own territory nor ward off the predation of others through their own efforts were eliminated. They were either gobbled up by their neighbors – as Poland was by Prussia, Austria and Russia in the 18th century – or ripped asunder by civil war and replaced by stronger, more internally legitimate successor states – as Yugoslavia was in the 1990s. In general, this “creative destruction” of sovereign states creates relatively strong countries over the long run, but immense bloodshed and misery in the short term. In the words of one academic wag, “states made war and war made states.”


    Intervention vs. hands-off

    This is obviously a problematic solution in our globalized age where instability in one country can destabilize an entire region or serve as an organizing platform and refuge for terrorists and organized international criminal elements. Predatory, Darwinian warfare is also immensely dangerous in a world increasingly filled with weapons of mass destruction. It also raises moral questions when powerful actors do nothing while slaughter on an immense scale, such as in Rwanda, could be easily prevented by a timely military intervention by outside powers or the UN. Indeed, the United States has faced this problem many times in the past several decades.

    Furthermore, this hands-off policy that allows the dirty, bloody process of state creation to run its course may end up with the emergence of political actors more dangerous and tyrannical than the chaos they end up replacing. This is exactly what happened in Afghanistan – where the end of the Afghan Civil War in 1996 led to the establishment of the despotic Taliban regime led by Mullah Mohammad Omar. The Taliban, in winning that vicious conflict, did finally provide peace to a shattered country – but only at the expense of the imposition of a barbaric, draconian interpretation of Islamic Law on its people. The Taliban, it should also be remembered, provided sanctuary to Osama Bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda network when the former was run out of Sudan, another failed state, in 1996.

    The final danger of a policy of non-intervention by one side in a conflict such as the one currently besetting Mali is that non-intervention may not be a policy accepted by all outside powers. This is exactly what occurred in the Spanish Civil War, when a principled policy of non-intervention was adhered to by the Western democracies but was flouted by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The Soviet Union, in turn, supported Republican forces in order to thwart the fascist powers. What resulted, as the West stood by, was the destruction of Spanish democracy and its replacement by the far-right regime of Francisco Franco, who ruled the country till 1973.

    In short, non-intervention can be policy that can run many risks, among them the acceptance of immense amount of bloodshed and the empowerment of illiberal, or at the very least, anti-Western political forces that can be significant threats in and of themselves. But, lest one think intervention is clearly the superior choice, this, too can result in a host of problems as bad as the chaos and instability the intervention is aimed at stopping.

    On the lower end of problematic outcomes to intervention is the high probability that it will merely freeze a conflict in place without actually solving the underlying political problems that caused it. This is precisely what happened in Bosnia, where NATO intervention may have stopped the fighting, but has otherwise done little to turn the country into a stable, multi-ethnic democracy. Indeed, Bosnia today is essentially a protectorate of the European Union – a situation that for all intents and purposes looks permanent. Cyprus, too, is another example where outside intervention – in this case by Turkey – has created a frozen conflict that defies all attempts at resolution.

    Still, jaw-jaw is better than war-war as Churchill said, but sometimes intervention can, like an infernal Rube Goldberg machine, merely set off other conflicts down the line. Western intervention in the Balkans, for instance, hamstringed Russia’s traditional ally Serbia and provided a pretext for Russia to later act against Georgia in 2008. Indeed, intervention by one great power or coalition of great powers into a conflict is often interpreted as a hostile move by another set of great powers – forcing them to respond in a tit-for-tat fashion. This usually just throws fuel on the fire, making a conflict far worse than it otherwise would be.


    How intervention can backfire

    Indeed, many of the conflicts in Africa during the Cold War suffered from exactly this type of phenomenon as Moscow and Washington provided immense amounts of weapons and assistance to its proxies in places like Angola, the Horn of Africa, and Mozambique. In the Middle East, the Lebanese Civil War went on interminably due to the innumerable outside actors who had a hand to play in that country’s horrific internal conflict. Lebanon is a prime example of civil war made truly terrible and insoluble due to outside interference.

    Another problem is that humanitarian intervention to put down “extremists” of the type that have overrun Northern Mali is often just cover for imperialism by a stronger power seeking to increase its advantage in a region of interest. Indian intervention into Sri Lanka’s long-running civil war can be considered an intervention of this type. So, too, can its war against Pakistan in 1971, which had the intention of ending the conflict in Bangladesh – then part of Pakistan – but which had the added benefit of literally dismembering its greatest rival for regional predominance. History is littered with examples like this since no imperial power ever admits it goes to war purely to advance its own interests.

    Finally, intervention may fail utterly to provide security by backfiring and making a situation worse. The US invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 is probably a textbook case of an intervention so totally botched and mishandled that it will go down in history as the most incompetent case of post-conflict stabilization in history. The US occupation of Afghanistan since 2001 is only little better in terms of its accomplishments in that even though it failed to defeat the Taliban and has managed only to prop up a corrupt, illegitimate regime in Kabul that has little power beyond the capital, it has done so at less expense in US blood and treasure and has not empowered its greatest regional enemy – Iran – in the process.

    So, for those wondering about the advisability of French intervention into Mali’s internal affairs, history provides no clear indication as to the right or wrong of it. Perhaps, it could turn out well. France and its regional allies might be able to put down the rebellion in North Mali quickly and at an acceptable cost in terms of lives lost and resources expended. Maybe, Paris can in turn create a situation where Mali’s squabbling communities can work out their political problems amicably – fostering the conditions necessary for a fair, lasting peace that leads to the emergence of a strong, stable, and democratic Mali.

    Sure, that could happen. Fairies and leprechauns could also appear on the backs of rainbow-snorting unicorns, too. All that we know for certain is that in one desperately poor, perennially conflict-ridden part of Africa, more people – combatants and non-combatants – alike will die. Let’s hope it ends quickly.

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