When French warplanes began pounding the northern half of the West African state of Mali in mid-January, the French government boasted that they quickly would regain control of the country.
As French troops advanced, Islamist fighters disappeared from the towns. By the end of January, French president Francois Hollande had flown to Timbuktu to claim victory. It was a scene reminiscent of the early days of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when George Bush declared “Mission accomplished”.
Hollande initially said that French troops would be withdrawn in March. But now the French advance has bogged down in Goa as the French and the Malian army confront what increasingly looks like becoming a prolonged guerrilla war.
More than 377,000 people have been displaced, including 150,000 refugees who have fled across Mali’s borders into neighbouring countries.
France now has over 4000 troops in Mali. Although there are also 3800 African Union troops in Mali, they are in no state to take over from the French. Nigeria is meant to lead the African occupying force. But one Nigerian government official told Reuters that, “The whole thing’s a mess. We don’t have any troops with experience of those extreme conditions, even of how to keep all that sand from ruining your equipment. And we’re facing battle-hardened guys who live in those dunes.”
The Malian army, now completely subservient to the French, is deeply divided. On 8 February there was an armed mutiny in the capital by elite paratroopers who defied orders to be sent to the front. Now there are also reports of dozens of reprisal killings by the Malian army that have turned larger numbers of the population against the army.
Mali is the eighth country in which western powers have intervened and bombed in the last four years alone: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and the Philippines.
Western imperialism has quickly seized on the opportunity of the French invasion to gain a foothold in West Africa. Britain and the US have transported French troops and equipment into Mali. Only ten days after the invasion the US signed an agreement with Niger that includes plans to establish a base near Mali’s border from which American drones could operate, just as they do in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The US has also opened talks about establishing drone bases in Algeria. Britain has also signed a security pact with Algeria to allow British Special Forces to train the Algerian army. British Prime Minister Cameron talks about Britain being involved in a “generational struggle” against terror in the region.
Western governments have described the invasion as a war against Islamic extremists, but Mali is 90 per cent Muslim.
In fact, it was the secular Tuareg group the MNLA, who first expelled the Malian army from the north, and their forces are still concentrated there, although many fighters have now withdrawn into the desert. There have been rebellions by the oppressed Tuaregs in the 1990s, in 2006-08 and then in 2012.
Niger, which is the main source of uranium for France, has its own reasons for taking a hard line against the Turareg in Mali—Niger also has a rebellious Turaeg minority.
Ironically, it was Western intervention in Libya and the toppling of the Gaddafi regime that forced many heavily-armed Turaeg fighters out of Libya, where they made up a large part of Gaddafi’s army, back into their homeland.
Contrary to Western propaganda, the rebellion is not controlled by a unified Al-Qaeda force, but a combination of Tuareg forces and three Islamic militias with differing agendas, and based in different areas of Mali.
It was a mixture of Turaeg and Islamic rebels that took advantage of divisions in the Malian army and in January began to move south capturing cities along the way.
It was when they threatened the capital Bamako that the French forces intervened.
The French and the Western forces are not interested in democracy or peace in Mali. France has frequently used military force in its former colonies. It still maintains military bases there, including in Chad, from where its current assault is being launched.
Just as in Iraq and Afghanistan, the West makes propaganda about a “war on terror” as an excuse to prop up a corrupt military regime and shore up their imperialist interests in the region.
The rebellion in the north is fuelled by long-standing demands for independence and grievances with the central government, demands for independence and opposition to foreign control. Until the foreign troops are withdrawn and those grievances are addressed, the crisis in Mali won’t end any time soon.