Recently by Eric Margolis: Welcome Americans to West Africa's Mysteries
PARIS — The bloody attack on an Algerian gas installation and France's invasion of Mali are the result of troubles that have been brewing for years — we simply have not been paying attention.
Jihadist guerilla leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar, headlined as a new Great Islamic Satan by French media, has been making trouble in the Sahara for a long time, kidnapping westerners, robbing caravans, smuggling cigarettes.
Belmokhtar was known as a "man of honor," one of the western-financed jihadists who went to battle the Soviets and their communist allies in Afghanistan in the 1980's and 90's. He returned to his native Algeria, minus an eye lost in combat, and, with his fellow "Afghani," sought to overthrow Algeria's western-backed military regime, a major oil and gas supplier to France.
In 1991, Algeria's junta, bankrupt of ideas, allowed a free election. Big mistake. Algeria's Islamists won the first round parliamentary vote. The military panicked. Backed by France and the US, Algeria's military crushed the Islamic movement and arrested its leaders.
As a result, one of our era's bloodiest civil wars erupted as Islamists and other insurgents battled the brutal Algerian military and intelligence forces, who called themselves, "the Eradicators."
During a decade of savagery, over 200,000 Algerians died. Entire villages were massacred. Both sides committed frightful atrocities. The Algiers government used special forces disguised as rebels to stage mass murders. Pickup trucks with guillotines were used to chop off people's heads.
After the uprising was crushed, one particularly violent Islamist guerilla group, formerly GIC, reformed itself into AQIM — al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. This caused a frenzied reaction in the West. But AQIM had next to nothing to do with Osama bin Laden's Afghan-Pakistan group. But the al-Qaida name brought instant media attention — a primary goal of radical groups.
After Mali's soldiers overthrew its feeble, corrupt government last March, the vast north went into chaos. Nomadic Tuareg tribesmen declared the independent state of Azawad. Assorted jihadists, including some of Belmokhtar's men, imposed draconian sharia law on the north. Mali's southerners called on former colonial master France for help.
Two months ago, President Francois Hollande declared France would not again intervene in Africa. Since granting nominal independence in 1960 to the states that comprised former French West Africa, France has intervened militarily 50 times. French technicians, bankers and intelligence agents run most of West Africa from behind the scenes. There are 60,000 French in Algeria and west Africa, seen by Paris as its sphere of influence.
Mali is a major supplier of uranium to France's nuclear industry which provides 80% of the nation's power. French mining interests cover West Africa, which is also a key export market for French goods and arms.
After jihadists proclaimed they would nationalize Mali's mines, Hollande turned from dove to hawk. French forces went into action behind a barrage of media propaganda about brutalities committed by the Islamists — just as French forces in Afghanistan were being driven out by Taliban fighters.
Hollande's popularity ratings, driven down to 32% by France's dire economic problems, tax hikes, and plant closings, soared to over 80%. Military adventures and patriotic flag-waving are always surefire remedies for politicians in trouble at home. Belmokhtar was declared the Osama bin Laden of the Sahara. Mali became a humanitarian mission lauded in the West. The US began quietly tiptoeing into the conflict.
Though a tempest in a teapot involving only a few thousand French troops, the Mali fracas threatens the unsteady French and US-backed regimes of resource-rich West Africa. Most particularly so Ivory Coast, Chad and Central African Republic, where 5,000 French soldiers and aircraft are based. An Islamist uprising in oil-rich Nigeria is growing fast, a major worry for Washington, whose regional energy resources are under threat.
Getting into little wars is always easy. Getting out is not, as Afghanistan has shown. Even French generals are now saying their troops will be in Mali, which has no real government, for a long time.
Patriotic euphoria in France is already abating. France's belligerent unions are back on the war path over plant closings. Efforts to cut France's huge deficit will hardly be helped by the little crusade in Mali.
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.