By Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar
27 January 2013
Barack Obama’s triumphal second inauguration as US President has been tarnished by Al Qaida’s attack on an Algerian gas plant that killed 38 foreigners. US analysts may ignore the connection, but the Libyan chickens have come home to roost.
A major Obama achievement is supposedly Gaddafi’s overthrow in Libya. Yet a line of direct causality runs from Gaddafi’s overthrow to the rise of Al Qaida in Mali and attack in Algeria.
Paranoid about the possibility of an internal coup, Gaddafi hired mercenaries from many African countries. These included Tuareg soldiers from Mali. Historically, the Tuaregs were great traders. They ferried gold and slaves from black Africa across the Sahara to the Mediterranean, and brought back salt. Their trade yielded huge wealth, with which they built the great city of Timbuktu.
Then came white colonial rule, dividing Africa through arbitrary lines on maps. One such artificial creation was Mali, combining blacks in the south with mostly Tuaregs in the Saharan north. The blacks were more numerous, so the capital was the southern city of Bamako, not Timbuktu.
After Gaddafi’s overthrow, his Tuareg mercenaries took their heavy weapons back to northern Mali. They joined hands with local Tuareg secessionists and an Islamist group, Ansar Dine. The Islamists soon came to dominate the new Tuareg combination. They linked up with Islamists in neighbouring countries to form Al Qaida of the Maghreb.
Mali had been a democracy for two decades. But after the Tuareg revolt, the Mali army staged a coup in Bamako. Under pressure of sanctions, the army allowed a partial restoration of civilian rule, but basically remained in charge. So, the NATO intervention in Libya, widely trumpeted as a triumph for democracy, actually ended up destroying both ethnic unity and democracy in Mali.
Meanwhile, the Islamist Tuaregs started moving south, taking several French hostages. France intervened to protect its citizens and greater interests. It is being supported by token forces from neighbouring African countries, but this is essentially a French/NATO move.
Islamists call this a religious war. This explains their suicide attack on the gas plant in Algeria, which was planned in Mali. Other attacks will surely follow.
The Islamists are not popular save in some pockets, and are feared by African governments. Their strict interpretation of Sharia is widely resented. They have destroyed historic buildings in Timbuktu as un-Islamic. Yet they are strong enough to take over territories.
Obama triumphalism over Gaddafi’s overthrow looks comic after the disastrous consequences in Mali and Algeria. The US media hail Hilary Clinton as a great Secretarty of State. Why? For exiting from Iraq leaving behind a Shia sectarian government, not an inclusive democracy? For exiting from Afghanistan after failing in all strategic goals? For promising to close down Guantanamo and not doing so?
May be Libya will evolve into a genuine democracy, but this is uncertain because of deep tribal rivalries that sparked Gaddafi’s overthrow. Democracy in next-door Egypt is already at risk, with secular parties accusing President Morsi of Islamist murder of the constitution. Of the Arab Spring countries, only Tunisia looks safe for democracy.
Militarization of the Arab Spring, by NATO in Libya, unwittingly destroyed democracy and ethnic peace in Mali. It greatly expanded Al Qaeda’s influence in the region. Yet we see no agonizing by US politicians or media over their role in this sorry sequence of events.
What lessons flow from this? In Syria, the US should stop the simplistic portrayal of the revolt against Bashir Assad as one of democratic forces against a tyrannical dictator. Overthrowing one nasty regime can simply lead to another.
Assad is a bloody dictator. But most rebel groups are Sunni and Islamist sectarians who have little time for secularism, democracy or minority rights. US support for these rebels could be as disastrous as was support to Islamist rebels in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The very Islamists who forced the withdrawal of Soviet troops have now forced the withdrawal of US troops.
The most powerful nation in history has been fiscally bankrupted by failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Debate on budget deficits drowns out debate on foreign policy.
French troops in Mali will, at least temporarily, check the advance of Islamist troops. But this has revived memories of colonial rule and is fraught with danger. Roping in troops from neighbouring countries makes sense, but these will be seen widely as colonial camp-followers, not a pan-African force. This will fuel Al Qaida’s propaganda.
There are no easy answers. Obama’s Libyan strategy of “leading from behind” will not work here. The ultimate solutions will have to come from within the region. Sadly, these are not in sight.