On to Timbuktu! A New Jolly Little War We Can't Find on a Map

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by Eric Margolis

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Welcome Mali, our newest crisis! Open your maps.

Mali is a huge, arid nation extending from the Sahara Desert and Algeria's border in the north to the steamy south along the Niger River. Most of Mali's 14.5 million people eke out an existence farming and fishing.

France used to rule Mali as part of its West African Empire, and still has deep financial, military, commercial and intelligence interests in the region.

Not so long ago, France installed West African leaders, financed them, and kept them in power using small garrisons of tough Foreign Legionnaires. Secret payments continue today. Spooks from France's DGSE intelligence agency, and "special advisors" are active behind the scenes in West Africa as well as North Africa.

The US has been rapidly expanding its influence in France's former African sphere of influence, both in a drive for resources and to block China's growing activity on the continent.

Arid Northern Mali was a backwater in France's colonial empire. Last March, Tuareg and militant Islamic militias seized Mali's vast north. US-trained army officers then overthrew the elected civilian government in Bamako of Amadou Touré.

Tuareg are fierce desert nomads often called the "blue men of the Sahara" because their skins become tinted by the blue veils they always wear to cover their faces. French colonial troops and Legionnaires battled the Tuareg throughout the 19th century and half of the 20th in a romantic little struggle on which the famed Victorian novel, "Beau Geste" was based.

The Tuareg want their own state, Azawad, carved from northern Mali, and bits of southern Algeria and Mauritania. Call them the Kurds of the Sahara.

Militant Islamists, led by Ansar Din, first joined the Tuareg fighters, but then pushed them out, seizing the fabled city of Timbuktu. These angry Islamists set about destroying ancient tombs of assorted local saints, producing huge indignation from westerners who could not find Timbuktu on a map if their lives depended on it. Orthodox Muslims denounce worship of saints as blasphemy and idolatry.

Western media immediately branded Ansar Din "linked to al-Qaida" without any real proof. These days, anyone we don't like is "linked to al-Qaida," a tiny groups that barely exists any more. However, lurking behind the next sand dune may be Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, a small, violent anti-western movement from Algeria that has nothing to do with the original al-Qaida but expropriated its name.

A French-backed UN Security Council vote for military intervention in Mali to oust the rebels is imminent. France wants the West African economic group ECOWAS to lead the charge. But this is merely the kind of "coalition" fig-leaf favored by the US in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Any real fighting and transport will be done by French military units from Europe or bases in central Africa and Chad. And, of course, the Legion.

Washington has a different plan. The US wants to follow the model it is using to fight Somalia's Shebab movement. In the last four years, the US has spent some $600 million to rent an African proxy force of 20,000 Ugandan, Ethiopian and Kenyan soldiers to invade Somalia and battle Shebab.

Washington plans a similar strategy in Mali, led by its sexy new star, Africa Command. Nigeria is expected to play a key role; Morocco and Algeria may contribute troops.

All this seems like a lot of effort to combat a bunch of Saharan tribesmen and trouble-makers in pickup trucks in a place whose main city, Timbuktu, is a synonym for remoteness and obscurity. No matter. The US and French media are dutifully raising alarms about the "Islamic threat" from deepest Sahara — in part to distract from domestic economic woes.

Is the US ready to wage yet another little conflict – on credit? Doesn't Washington have enough conflicts? Apparently not.

Mali could get nasty: neighbors Algeria, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, and Ivory Coast are unstable. The Saharawi of Western Sahara have fought for decades against Morocco for their own state. They are backed by Algeria.

Into this potential tinder box France and the US are preparing to charge. "On to Timbuktu" goes out the battle cry of the latest obscure crusade.

Eric Margolis [send him mail] is the author of War at the Top of the World and the new book, American Raj: Liberation or Domination?: Resolving the Conflict Between the West and the Muslim World. See his website.

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