On to the Malian quagmire?

ISLAMIST GUERRILLAS  are fighting back French and Malian forces in northern Mali, from where they were expelled last month by invading French forces. The Muslim militant group Mojwa (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa) has twice engaged the French in sustained gun battles in Gao, the region’s largest city. The guerrillas have vowed not to let up their struggle until foreigners are expelled from Mali.

I wonder if we’re going to see a replay of the Iraq and Afghanistan dramas in West Africa.

Although Mojwa has taken the lead in these attacks, Mali’s main Islamist organization, Ansar al-Din, and Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters are reportedly planning their own offensives against the invaders.

The French invasion was quickly supported by the United States, Canada, Britain, Belgium, Germany, and Denmark. The West, too, is trying to court the secular secessionist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA). The Islamists had allied with the NMLA to “liberate” northern Mali – which they call Azawad – from Mali. Later the two groups split, and the Islamists wrested control of northern Mali from NMLA.

There’s a difference between the French-led Western invasion of Mali and the U.S.-led ones in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Mali, the Western governments are saying they’re after all at war with Islam, albeit an “extremist” wing of it. They strongly denied suggestions of the anti-Islamic nature of the Iraqi and Afghan invasions.

Are they really trying to roll back Islamic resurgence in West Africa? If so why? Can they have their “mission accomplished” in Africa, which they failed to do in the Middle East?

The reason that France and its Western allies have given for hounding the Malian “Islamic extremists” is that, if the militants can come to power in Mali, they would impose Islamic canon law, the Shari’a, in that country. The argument doesn’t make any sense. The Malian population is 90 percent Muslim. Introduction of Islamic law in a Muslim society didn’t cause Western military intervention ever before. It didn’t when Pakistan’s military dictator Muhammad Zia al-Haq clamped the Shari’a on Pakistan, getting Muslims flogged and given death sentences for infractions of his extreme version of Islamic law.

The West didn’t go to war or propose any kind of sanctions against Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his radical Islamists when they imposed another harsh version of Islamic law in Iran. Instead, sanctions were imposed on the Islamic Republic because of its holding Americans hostage, carrying on its uranium enrichment program, and other mundane reasons.

Indeed, the United States funded and armed the Afghan Islamic fundamentalist Mujahedeen in their war against Soviet invaders in Afghanistan. President Ronald Reagan was impressed by the Mujahedeen’s fierce resistance to the Communist invaders. In 1988 he counseled visiting Turkish military ruler Kenan Evren to promote Islamic education in Turkey as part of his battle with Communists and leftists.

In reality, the Malian war is about preserving and promoting Western economic and strategic interests in West Africa. The Islamists are facing the Western onslaught because they’re about the only forces that would resist Western hegemony and exploitation of their resources by the West. They’re the only ones fighting Western hegemony in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and in other Muslim societies.

Mali is the second-largest gold producer in West Africa, after South Africa. Several foreign companies have begun uranium exploration around Gao, where Islamist militants recently engaged French and Malian troops in a bitter fight. Diamond, iron, bauxite, copper and other minerals are also being explored in Mali.

The French depend heavily on uranium to run its nuclear reactors, which provide more than 75 percent of its electricity and make nuclear bombs. It was no surprise that while fighting Islamists in Mali, the French lost no time to rush special forces commandos to Niger to reinforce security around the French state-owned uranium mining company Avera there.

The United States has seized on the Malian crisis to beef up its strategic ties to that region. The Obama administration, besides providing logistical support to French forces in Mali, has signed a status-of-force agreement Niger to build a drone base there to conduct missions against Islamist groups in Africa. President Muhammad Issoufou of Niger told news media that he was planning “a long-term strategic relationship with the U.S.,” adding, “What is happening in northern Mali can happen to us.”

Western powers are aware of Africans’ sensitivity about Western “neo-colonialism.” Hence they’re anxious to localize their fight against Islamism. They’re the strengthening the military muscle of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a regional strategic and economic-development grouping. They plan to outsource their war on Islamism to pliant members of ECOWAS. Many of these regimes are themselves threatened by Islamist resurgence, and welcome security cooperation with the West. Chad, an ECOWAS members, already has sent several thousand troops to join the French-Malian assault on the Islamists.

The West and its West African allies may have short- or medium-term successes against the Islamists. The French and Malian government troops have dispersed the Islamist insurgents from the cities of northern Mali: Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal. As mentioned, the West and the Malian government are trying to woo the secular NMLA in northern Mali. Many Malians opposed to the Islamists have hailed the invaders. They greeted visiting French President Francois Hollande with a boisterous applause. President Traore thanked “our brother” Hollande for the French intervention.

I have seen enough of adulation of invaders in the heady aftermath of invasions and its rapid evaporation. In 2003 the American invasion sparked jubilation among Kurdish secessionists in northern Iraq. Earlier, in 2001, Afghanistan’s dissident Tajik tribes fought on the front lines of the U.S. invasion. In 1971, Bangladeshi insurgents showered invading Indian troops with accolades and bouquets. In all these countries, early hospitality to foreign forces soon gave way to widespread public resistance to their presence.

Malians and West Africans are unlikely to be an exception. Mali’s Islamist guerrillas apparently made a strategic retreat to the desert and northern mountains, from where they begun to wage what’s likely to be a drawn-out struggle against foreign and Malian government forces. I’m afraid Mali is turning into the next Western quagmire after Iraq and Afghanistan.

If American experience in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen is any indication, the Western aggression would eventually bolster, rather than diminish, Islamic resurgence.

◆ Mustafa Malik, an international affairs columnist in Washington, hosts the blog Islam and the West.

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