Jeremy Corbyn MP looks behind the Anglo-French operation.
Mali was a colonial creation in every sense. Its independence came as part of a federation with Senegal which did not last. So it broke away and formed modern Mali, an odd conglomeration of the desert north and south with huge linguistic, religious and cultural differences.
In early days, it was quite pro- Soviet but nevertheless heavily influenced by France. A series of coups and disputes took place. France, never really accepting much of African independence, maintained huge economic ties and mining interests. It has always looked upon much of North and Central Africa as its own backyard.
The fundamental problem has been the way in which the Tuareg people, covering all countries in North Africa, are barely recognised. Their aspiration for an independent Azwad covering parts of the whole region is ignored.
This has never been achieved despite declarations by the people’s leadership. The aftermath of the Arab Spring and the war in Libya affected everything. Large numbers of pro-Gaddaffi Tuareg fighters arrived from Libya, all well armed. The strengthened Tuareg forces, aided by al Qa’eda, gained control of the north of Mali and its three main cities. Their threat to march on the capital panicked the government which appealed for French help. President Hollande responded and, after a late night phone call to Cameron, Britain was involved.
Initially it was claimed, to the surprise of many, that France did not have sufficient transport planes so British help was needed. Two planes were duly sent, one of which broke down in Paris, and then a group of soldiers followed as ‘trainers’, followed by surveillance aircraft. Special forces may also be operating.
The French forces re-took the northern cities very quickly and, taking a cue from Bush in Iraq in 2003, President Hollande flew to Timbuktu to be cheered by soldiers and to declare an early victory. A week later a suicide bomb attempt in Gao was followed by a firefight and only ended with the assistance of French helicopters.
Two big factors are missing from the statements of both Cameron and Hollande. The government of Mali is the product of a coup and the human rights record of its army is appalling. Very credible reports of summary executions and brutality abound. Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International attest to the many occasions of routine abuse by state forces.
The other factor is how the mineral rich desert of Mali and many neighbouring countries, particularly their oil, gas and uranium reserves, fuel the appetite of the French nuclear power industry.
Cameron’s quick trip to Algeria, his promises of sharing security information and the pressure to develop an African (ECOWAS) force, suggest a long and debilitating conflict.
The West’s blaming of al Qa’eda for the whole problem ignores the issues of poverty and corruption in Mali, the role of the Tuareg peoples and the West’s greed for natural resources. Increasingly, this looks like a hi-tech western operation from the air, using surveillance and probably drones against an embedded desert-based guerrilla force. Twelve years after the Afghanistan invasion by the US and Britain, history looks like repeating itself.
Apart from a statement by Cameron after the deployment of the RAF transport planes, there has been neither an oral statement to Parliament nor an opportunity to question ministers, despite many requests from me and other MPs and a motion from John McDonnell calling for a debate.
Cameron has followed Blair in entering a very dubious enterprise on the equally dubious grounds that it makes Europe ‘safer’. What an interesting concept.