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Mali, France, and Chickens

As in: come home to roost.

Thursday 24 January 2013, by siawi3

By Conn Hallinan

Foreign Policy in Focus, January 19, 2013


"It appears the French had one of their wars going
on thereabouts." — Charlie Marlow from Joseph
Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

The vision that Conrad’s character Marlow
describes is of a French frigate firing broadsides
into a vast African jungle, in essence, bombarding a
continent. That image came to mind this week
when French Mirages and helicopter gunships went
into action against a motley army of Islamic
insurgents in Mali.

That there is a surge of instability in that land-
locked and largely desert country should hardly
come as a surprise to the French: they and their
allies are largely the cause.

And they were warned.

A little history. On Mar. 17, 2011, the UN Security
Council approved Resolution 1973 to "protect
civilians" in the Libyan civil war. Two days later,
French Mirages began bombing runs on Muammar
Gaddafi’s armored forces and airfields, thus igniting
direct intervention by Britain, along with Qatar and
Saudi Arabia.

Resolution 1973 did not authorize NATO and its
allies to choose sides in the Libyan civil war, just to
protect civilians, and many of those who signed
on-including Russia and China-assumed that
Security Council action would follow standard
practice and begin by first exploring a political
solution. But the only kind of “solution” that anti-
Gaddafi alliance was interested in was the kind
delivered by 500-lb. laser-guided bombs.

The day after the French attack, the African Union
(AU) held an emergency session in Mauritania in an
effort to stop the fighting. The AU was deeply
worried that, if Libya collapsed without a post-
Gaddafi plan in place, it might destabilize other
countries in the region. They were particularly
concerned that Libya’s vast arms storehouse might
end up fueling local wars in other parts of Africa.

However, no one in Washington, Paris or London
paid the AU any mind, and seven months after
France launched its attacks, Libya imploded into its
current status as a failed state. Within two months,
Tuaregs-armed with Gaddafi’s weapons’
cache-rose up and drove the corrupt and
ineffectual Malian Army out of Northern Mali.

The Tuaregs are desert people, related to the Berbers
that populate North Africa’s Atlas Mountain range.
They have fought four wars with the Malian
government since the country was freed from France
in 1960, and many Tuaregs want to form their own
country, “Azawed.” But the simmering discontent in
northern Mali is not limited to the Tuaregs. Other
ethnic groups are angered over the south’s studied
neglect of all the people in the country’s north.

The Tuaregs are also currently fighting the French
over uranium mining in Niger.

The Gaddafi government had long supported the
Tuareg’s demands for greater self-rule, and many
Tuareg’s served in the Libyan Army. Is anyone
surprised that those Tuareg’s looted Libyan arms
depots when the central government collapsed?
And, once they had all that fancy fire power that
they would put it to use in an effort to carve out a
country of their own?

The Tuareg’s are nomads and had little interest in
holding on to towns like Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal
in northern Mali, and after smashing up the Mali
Army, they went back into the desert. Into the
vacuum created by the rout of the Malian Army
flowed Islamic groups like Ansar-al-Din, al-Tawhid
wa al-Jihad, and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb
(AQIM). It is these latter organizations that the
French are bombing, although reports are that
civilians are getting caught in the crossfire.

The U.S. is also involved. According to Democracy
Now, the Obama administration is moving French
troops and equipment into the area, and deploying
surveillance drones. And with the war spreading
into Algeria, where almost two-dozen westerners,
including several Americans, were kidnapped in
retaliation for the French attacks in Mali, the U.S.
may end up with boots on the ground.

Why are the French once again firing into a

First, France has major investments in Niger and
Mali. At bottom, this is about Francs (or Euros, as it
may be). Some 75 percent of France’s energy needs
come from nuclear power, and a cheap source is its
old colonial empire in the region (that besides Mali
and Niger included Senegal, Mauritania, Guinea,
Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Chad, Algeria, and the
Central African Republic). Most of its nuclear fuel
comes from Niger, but Al Jezeera reports that French
uranium, oil and gold companies are lining up to
develop northern Mali. Lest one think that this
“development” is good for the locals, consider that,
according to the UN’s Human Development Index,
Niger is the third poorest country in the world.

There are other issues as well.

Like a Napoleon complex.

"The French, like the Americans, judge presidents
on their ability to make tough decisions, and there
are few tougher ones than to send young men into
battle," writes New York Times reporter Steve
Erlanger in a story on French President Francois
Hollande’s decision to intervene in Mali. Titled
"Hollande, long seen as soft, shifts image with firm
stance" (which makes it sound vaguely like a Viagra
ad), the article quotes “defense expert” Francois
Heisbourg praising Hollande for acting “decisively”
and "demonstrating that he can decide on matters of
war and peace.“Actually, back in 1812 that”war and peace" thing
came out rather badly for the French, though today’s
new model Grande Armee won’t face much in the
way of snow and ice in Mali. But Mali is almost
twice the size of France-478,839 vs. 211,209
square miles-which is a lot of ground for Mirages to
cover. In fact, the French warplanes are not even
based in Mali, but neighboring Chad, some 1,300
miles away from their targets. That is a very long
way to go for fighter-bombers and gives them very
little time over the battlefield. Apparently the U.S. is
considering helping out with in-air refueling, but, by
any measure, the French forces will face
considerable logistical obstacles. And while Mali’s
geography may not match the Russian steppes in
winter, its fierce desert is daunting terrain.

Lastly, Hollande would like to take some pressure off
his domestic situation. There is nothing like a war
to make people forget about a stagnant economy,
high unemployment, restive workers, and yet
another round of austerity cuts.

But this war could get very nasty, and if you want
the definition of a quagmire, try northern Mali.
Instead of being intimidated by the French attacks,
the insurgents successfully counterattacked and
took the town of Diabaly in Central Mali. If Paris
thought this was going to be a simple matter of
scattering the wogs with a few bombing runs, one
might suggest that Hollande revisit his country’s
past counterinsurgency campaigns, starting with

The Islamic groups appear to have little local
support. Mali is a largely Islamic country, but not of
the brand followed by the likes of Ansar al-Din or
AQIM. But if you hand out lots of first-class fire
power-which is exactly what the war to overthrow
Gaddafi did-than you don’t need a lot of support to
cause a great deal of trouble.

The rebels are certainly not running into any
opposition from the Mali Army, whose U.S.-trained
leader, Captain Amadou Sanogo, overthrew his
country’s democratic government two months after
the Tuaregs came storming out of the Sahara to take
Timbuktu. Apparently a number of those U.S.-
trained troops switched sides, taking their weapons
and transport over to the insurgents.

There is evidence that the Mali Army may have
provoked the Tuaregs in the first place. It appears
that, rather than using the millions of dollars
handed out by the U.S. over the past four years to
fight “terrorism” in the region, the Mali Army used it
to beat up on the Tuaregs. That is until the latter got
an infusion of superior firepower after the fall of

The French plan to put about 2,500 troops in Mali,
but are relying on the Economic Community of West
Africa (ECOWAS) to raise an army of 3,300. But the
ECOWAS army will have to be transported to Mali
and trained, and someone will have to foot the bill.
That means that for the next several months it will
be the French who hold down the fort, and that is
going to cost a lot of Euros, of which France hardly
has a surfeit.

The people of northern Mali have long standing
grievances, but the current crisis was set off by the
military intervention in Libya. And if you think Libya
created monsters, just think of what will happen if
the Assad government in Syria falls without a
political roadmap in place. Yes, the French are very
involved in Syria right now, a civil war that is
increasingly pitting Sunnis against Shites and has
already spread into Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and
Iraq. Next to Syria’s weapons hoards, Libya’s
firepower looks like a collection of muskets and

Dominique de Villepin, the former prime minister of
France and a sharp critic of the U.S. invasion of
Iraq, recently wrote in the Journal du Dimanche:
"These wars [like Mali] have never built a solid and
democratic state. On the contrary, they favor
separatism, failed states and the iron law of armed

So what do Mali and the French intervention have
to do with chickens?

They always come home to roost.