Recently by Eric Margolis: Let's Not Forget the World's Most Dangerous Border While We Fret About Iran and North Korea
Confused over the surging violence in Mali and now Algeria? Trying to find Mali on the map?
War, as the great Roman historian Tacitus wrote, teaches geography. This week's new lesson is West and North Africa, not so long ago colonial possessions of France.
Big irony: the US claimed its energy sources were threatened by instability in the Arab world. So it began exploiting West Africa as a "secure" alternative.
Western governments and media have done the public a major disservice by trumpeting warnings of an "Islamist threat" in Mali. It's as if Osama bin Laden has popped up on the Niger River. Our newest crisis in Africa is not driven primarily by religion but by a spreading uprising against profoundly corrupt, western-backed oligarchic governments and endemic poverty.
Mali's troubles began last year when it shaky government was overthrown. Meanwhile, heavily-armed nomadic Tuareg tribesmen, who had served Libya's late Col. Gadaffi as mercenaries until he was overthrown by French and US intervention, poured back into their homeland in Mali's north. A major unexpected consequence. Fierce Tuareg warriors, who battled French colonial rule for over a century, were fighting for an independent homeland, known as Azawad.
They, a small, violent jihadist group, Ansar Din, and another handful of obscure Islamists drove central government troops out of the north, which they proclaimed independent, and began marching on the fly-blown capital, Bamako.
France, the colonial ruler of most of West Africa until 1960, has overthrown and imposed client regimes there ever since. French political, financial and military advisors and intelligence services ran West Africa from behind a façade of supposedly independent governments. Disobedient regimes were quickly booted out by elite French troops and Foreign Legionnaires based in West Africa that guarded France's mining and oil interests in what was known as "FrancAfrique."
Overthrowing African regimes was OK for France, but not for locals. When Mali's French-backed regime was challenged, France feared its other West African clients might face similar fate, and began sending troops to back the Bamako regime. President Francois Hollande, who had vowed only weeks ago not to intervene in West Africa, said some 2,500 French troops would intervene in Mali. But only on a "temporary basis" claimed Hollande, forgetting de la Rochfoucauld's dictum "there is nothing as permanent as the temporary!"
Other shaky western-backed West African governments took fright at events in Mali, fearing they too might face overthrow at the hands of angry Islamists calling for stern justice and an end to corruption. Nigeria, the region's big power, vowed to send troops to Mali. Nigeria has been beset by its own revolutionary jihadist movement, Boko Haram, which claims Muslim Nigerians have been denied a fair share of the nation's vast oil wealth, most of which has been stolen by corrupt officials.
France's overheated claim that it faces a dire Islamic threat in obscure Mali could attract the attention of numbers of free-lance jihadists, many who are now busy tearing up Syria. Paris was better off when it claimed its troops were to protect ancient Muslim shrines in Timbuktu. Or it could have quietly sent in the Foreign Legion, as in the past.
Instead, Mali has become a crisis with the US, Britain, West African states and the UN involved in this tempest in an African teapot. A nice diversion from budget crisis.
Another Algerian jihadist group just attacked an important state gas installation in revenge for France's assault on Mali. This bloody action has awoken Algeria's hitherto quiescent Islamic resistance groups. They waged a ten year war against Algeria's US and French backed military regime, one of the continent's most repressive regimes, after Algeria's armed forces crushed Islamists after they won a fair election in 1991.
Over 250,000 Algerians died in a long, bloody civil war. The Algiers government often used gangs of its soldiers disguised as rebel fighters to commit gruesome massacres to blacken the name of the opposition. Algeria may again be headed for a new bloodbath, this time with minority Berber people calling for their independent state.
US air forces and small numbers of Special Forces from its new Africa Command are now entering action in Mali and Algeria. More are sure to follow as West Africa smolders.
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.