Monthly Archives: August 2012

The Mali War-The Wages of Sin

The Mali War: The Wages of Sin

Dispatches From The Edge

Aug.7, 2012

The reports filtering out of Northern Mali are appalling: a young couple stoned to death, iconic ancient shrines dismantled, and some 365,000 refugees fleeing beatings and whippings for the slightest violations of Sharia law.  But the bad dream unfolding in this West African country is less the product of a radical version of Islam than a consequence of the West’s scramble for resources on this vast continent, and the wages of sin from the recent Libyan war.

The current crisis gripping northern Mali—an area about the size of France— has its origins in the early years of the Bush Administration, when the U.S. declared the Sahara desert a hotbed of “terrorism” and poured arms and Special Forces into the area as part of the Trans-Sahal Counter Terrorism Initiative. But, according to anthropologist Jeremy Keenan, who has done extensive fieldwork in Mali and the surrounding area, the “terrorism” label had no basis in fact, but was simply designed to “justify the militarization of Africa.”

The U.S. military claimed that when the Taliban fell in Afghanistan, terrorists moved west into the Horn of Africa, the Sudan and the Sahara. But Keenan says, “There was absolutely no evidence for that…really a figment of imagination.” The real target of enlarging the U.S.’s military footprint was “oil resources” and “the gradually increasing threat of China on the continent.”

The U.S. currently receives about 18 percent of its energy supplies from Africa, a figure that is slated to rise to 25 percent by 2015. Africa also provides about one-third of China’s energy needs, plus copper, platinum, timber and iron ore. According to the Financial Times, new gas fields were recently discovered on the Algeria-Mali border

There have been terrorist acts in Africa. In 1998, hotels were bombed in Kenya and, in 2002, a synagogue in Tunisia. The 2004 Madrid train bombers were associated with the Moroccan Islamic Combat Group, an organization that set off bombs in Casablanca in 2003.

But these groups had no affiliation with international terror groups like al-Qaeda, and the only one that could be said to be Sahara-based was the Algerian Salafist Group for Fighting and Preaching. That group later renamed itself “Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb” (AQIM).

In 2006, the International Crisis Group also concluded that the Sahara “was not a hotbed of terrorism” and that most North African governments saw the Trans Sahal Initiative as a way to tap into high end arms technology, like attack helicopters, night vision equipment, and sophisticated communications networks.

When the U.S. African Command (AFRICOM) was formed in 2008, it took over the Initiative and began working directly with countries in the region, including Mali, Morocco, Tunisia, Chad, Niger, Mauretania, and Senegal.  Indeed, the only country in the region that did not have a tie to AFRICOM was Libya.

The US also has basing agreements with Uganda, Ghana, Namibia, Ghana, Gabon, and Zambia. Some 1500 U.S. Marines are currently deployed at Lemonier, a French Foreign Legion base in Djibouti on the horn of Africa.

The “terrorism” label has always been a slippery one. For instance, the US supported the 2006 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia that overthrew the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) government. Washington said the UIC was associated with al-Qaeda, but never produced any evidence of that. The UIC was a moderate Islamic movement that drove out the U.S.-supported warlords and brought peace to Somalia for the first time since 1991. It included such radical Islamic groups as the Shabab, but those organizations did not dominate the government.

The Ethiopian invasion changed all that. For Somalians, Ethiopia is a traditional enemy, and the Shabab succeeded in uniting a large section of the population against the occupation. Thus, a small group that was marginal in the UIC became the backbone of the resistance. “The end result of the US-backed invasion was driving Somalia into the al-Qaeda fold,” says Somalia’s former foreign minister, Ismaciil Buubaa.

The crisis in Mali has a long history, rooted in the country’s deep poverty, on one hand, anda on the other, a push by the Tuaregs—a nomadic Berber people that have long controlled trans-Sahara trade—for greater autonomy and a bigger piece of the development pie. The Tuaregs have staged unsuccessful revolts four times since Mali won its independence from France in 1960, but the fall of Mummer Gaddafi in Libya gave them a golden opportunity.

Gaddfi had long supported the Tuaregs in their war for independence, and many Tuaregs served as pro-government mercenaries in Libya. When Gaddafi fell, a cornucopia of arms opened for the Tuaregs, who quickly put their newly acquired firepower to use against the largely ineffective Malian army.

The so-called “terrorist” groups, like Ansar al-Din, al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad and AQIM, only moved in after the Tuareg Movement for the National Liberation of Azawed had expelled the Malian army from the north and declared a separate country. It is these groups that are stoning people to death, tearing down Sufi shrines, and enforcing rigid Sharia law. The Tuaregs have largely been pushed to the side, and many of them have returned to the desert, abandoning cities like Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal to the Islamic groups.

Besides the original protagonists in northern Mali, there is growing tension between the Islamists and the Songhai, Mali’s largest ethnic group. There are rumors that Songhai villages are organizing militia, adding yet another dimension of potential trouble.

None of this had to happen.

When the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1973 on Mar. 17 last year, it was to “protect civilians” in Libya. At the time, the 53-member African Union (AU) was attempting to negotiate a political solution to the crisis, but two days after the UN resolution was approved, NATO launched Operation Odyssey that smashed up Gaddafi’s air force and armor.

On Mar. 20, the AU met in Mauritania in an effort to stop the fighting. “Our desire,” read a joint AU statement “is that Libya’s unity and territorial integrity be respected as well as the rejection of any kind of foreign intervention.” The AU was acutely aware that Africa’s delicate post-colonial borders have enormous potential for creating instability, and that Libya might end up being a falling domino.

“Whatever the motivation of the principle NATO belligerents [in ousting Gadaffi], the law of unintended consequences is exacting a heavy toll on Mali today,” former UN regional envoy Robert Fowler told the Guardian (UK) “and will continue to do so throughout the Sahel as the vast store of Libyan weapons spreads across this, one of the most unstable regions of the world.”

A decade of growing US military involvement on the continent has not only failed to curb instability and the growth of so-called “terrorist” groups, the US’s actions in Somalia and Libya have directly fed the formation of such organizations. And “training” has hardly stabilized things. Indeed, the Mali army captain, Amadou Sanogo, who overthrew the civilian government—the act that led to the Tuareg’s successful offensive—was trained by the U.S. military.  Sanogo attended the Defense Language Institute in 2005 and 2007, a US Army intelligence program in 2008, and an officer-training course in 2010.

“Terrorism” in Africa is fueled by local conditions, not by an international jihadist agenda. Boko Harum in Nigeria reflects the tension between the poverty of the country’s largely Islamic north and its more prosperous Christian south. Similar fault lines run through Niger, Ivory Coast and Cameroon. Terrorism in Algeria and Morocco mirror economies that are unable to provide jobs for a huge swath of their populations, coupled with authoritarian political structures that stifle any attempt to do something about it. Somalia was first a pawn in the Cold War, and then the very definition of chaos. When an Islamic government began taming that chaos, the U.S. overthrew it, unleashing the Shabab.

Hundreds of millions of dollars in aid is being directed at fighting terrorism on the continent, and the US military is training the armed forces of dozens of African nations.  A Malian army captain used that aid and training to pull off a coup that now threatens to turn into a regional war.

Will Morocco use U.S. aid to fight terrorism or tighten its grip over the mineral rich Western Sahara and re-ignite its war with the Polisario Front? Will Niger fight “terrorists” or crush Tuareg resistance to French uranium mining in the Sahara? Will Algeria go after the AQIM or its own outlawed Islamist organizations? Will aid to fight terrorism in Nigeria be diverted to smash resistance by local people to oil production in the Niger Delta?

Bayonets won’t defeat the source of terrorism and instability in Africa. Indeed, military solutions tend to act as recruiting sergeants for groups like AQIM. Africa doesn’t need more weapons, but rather aid, development, and programs that lift a significant section of the continent’s population out of poverty.

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Alexander Cockburn 6/6/41-7/20/12

Aug. 3, 201Alexander Cockburn June 6, 1941-July 20, 2012

For Chaos heard his voice: him all his Traine

Follow’d in the bright procession to behold

Creation, and the wonders of his might.

-Paradise Lost, John Milton

It was fitting that writer and critic Alexander Cockburn’s funeral should include a passage from Milton. For more than 50 years, Cockburn combined polished, erudite writing with fierce political insight in the tradition of the great 17th century English polemicist. Cockburn died July 20 in Germany at age 71, following a two-year struggle with cancer. He was buried July 28 in his beloved Petrolia, Ca.

It is hard to sum up his career because it was catholic in true meaning of that word: all embracing. He wrote for newspapers in England, New York’s Village Voice, the Wall Street Journal, and the Nation, and, along with Jeffery St. Clair, founded the investigative publication, CounterPunch. For more than 50 years, Cockburn was a relentless critic of U.S. foreign policy, opposing the Yugoslav War, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the recent war in Libya.

He was particularly critical of Israel, and for that earned the undying enmity of people like Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who called him an anti-Semite. Cockburn responded by publishing a book of essays entitled “The Politics of Anti-Semitism,” commenting that one could always tell when Israel was misbehaving because of charges of anti-Semitism thrown at its critics.

He was born in Scotland, the oldest of three sons of Claud and Patricia Cockburn. He had two sisters from his father’s previous marriages. The family moved to Youghal, County Cork in 1947, and Cockburn lived there until he went to Oxford in 1960.  Graduating from Oxford in 1963 with a degree in literature and language, he worked as a journalist in London. He moved to the United States in 1972.

For 12 years Cockburn wrote a column for the Village Voice called “Press Clips,” which dismantled the myth of objective journalism and exposed the incestuous relationship between U.S. foreign and domestic policy and the media. The column sent shockwaves through the fourth estate in much the same way as A.J. Liebling’s critical writings had done in a previous generation.

He left the Voice in 1984 and began writing a column named after one of his father’s novels, “Beat the Devil,” for the Nation. He continued to do so up until a few days before he died. His last column appeared in the Nation July 30.

In 1996 he and Jeffery St. Clair founded CounterPunch along with Jeffery, a combination print and on-line investigative magazine that features some of the leading writers on the Left.

The Cockburn family was sort of a journalism collective. His father Claud was probably the best front-line reporter during the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War—and the competition was rather steep for that designation—and a brilliant essayist on everything from British foreign policy to Irish agricultural practices. The elder Cockburn’s ability to write about virtually anything paralleled Alexander’s career. As Nation editor and publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel told the Associated Press, “His range was extraordinary. He could write about fox hunting, and he could write about intervention.”

Cockburn wrote several books, including “Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press” (with St. Clair), “A Short History of Fear,” “Corruptions of Empire,” and “End Times: The Death of the Fourth Estate.”

Alexander’s brothers, Patrick and Andrew, are also journalists of considerable merit. Patrick, a Middle East expert for the Independent, spent several years in Iraq, writing an outstanding book on Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr. He is currently based in Britain and continues to report and comment on the Middle East.

Andrew, an expert on all matters military, has written several investigative books, including a recent one on former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, as well as a study of U.S.-Israeli covert relations, and a book on Saddam Hussein.

His Frontline story “Drugs, Guns and the CIA”—done in collaboration with his wife, Leslie Cockburn— is probably the best study of the long and sordid relationship between American intelligence and drug dealers during the U.S. war in Laos and the Contra War against Nicaragua.

Obituaries have labeled Cockburn a “contrarian,” although that term is inaccurate. He was famously fierce and could be absolutely scathing— woe betide those who challenged him in print—but his politics were always coherent and deep-seated. If he disagreed with you it wasn’t because he was being contrary, it was because he didn’t agree with your politics.

He was always suspicious of orthodoxy—a sentiment that he shared with Milton—which many times put him at odds with others on the Left. He was roundly criticized for his doubts about global warming, but his stance had nothing to do with crankiness and everything to do with his mistrust of group think. He was suspicious of assumed truths, and when he expressed those sentiments about global warming he was widely denounced. It was as if he had gone to Lourdes and done something rude to the Virgin Mary. Criticism of independent thinking always made him dig in his heels and if you wanted a good old-fashioned Donnybrook, Alex was your man.

His funeral was very much an Alexander Cockburn affair. The speeches were short and the funeral procession—led by his daughter, Daisy—was headed up by a yellow fire engine. A long line of cars followed, winding their way through the rolling Northern California hills to a flat plain surrounded by high hills crowned with ocean fog. “Over to the glory land” was sung and Cockburn’s beautifully handcrafted coffin—embossed with a typewriter—laid to rest.

We shall not see his like again in our time.

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