France in Mali: The longue durée of imperial blowback

The dispatching of French soldiers to beat back rapidly advancing Salafi militants in northern Mali represents the convergence of multiple circles of blowback from two centuries of French policies in Africa. Some date back to the beginning of the 19th century, others to policies put in place during the last few years. Together, they spell potential disaster for France and the United States (the two primary external Western actors in Mali today), and even more so for Mali and the surrounding countries.

Only two outcomes, together, can prevent the nightmare scenario of a huge failed state in the heart of Africa spreading violence across the continent. First, the French-led assault on the north must manage to force most of the Salafi fighters out of the populated areas presently under their control and install a viable African-led security force that can hold the population centres for several years. If that weren't difficult enough, French and international diplomats must create space for the establishment of a much more representative and less corrupt Malian government, one which can and will negotiate an equitable resolution to the decades long conflict with the Touareg peoples of the North, whose latest attempt violently to carve out a quasi-independent zone in the north early last year helped create the political and security vacuum so expertly, if ruthlessly, exploited by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM) and its allied radical groups.

The first and largest circle of blowback returns to French colonial policy in North and West Africa, which was responsible for the creation of most of the states that are involved in the present conflict. France began deliberately to colonise large swaths of West Africa at the start of the 19th century, gaining control of what today is Mauritania and Senegal by 1815, followed by the invasion of Algeria in 1830, Tunisia in 1881, French Guinea, the Ivory Coast, and the French Sudan (which would become Mali) - in the 1890s, Niger in 1903-4 and Morocco in 1912.

Carved from colonialism

It is impossible to know how the map of Africa would have evolved without European colonialism to shape it. What is sure, however, is that the European "scramble for Africa" that dominated the 19th century - and in which local rulers played a willing part whenever it served their interests - ensured that European powers would create the territorial foundation for modern nation-states whose borders bore little correspondence to the ethnic and religious geography of the continent. Mali in particular was composed of several distinct ethnic, linguistic and what today are considered "racial" groups. Its brief and ill-fated union with Senegal at the time of independence in 1960 highlights the artificial foundation of the region's states and their borders.

The lack of consideration for local ethnic, religious and cultural dynamics and the colonial imperative to arrogate as much territory under one rule as possible created a situation in which states with areas over twice the size of France and population groups which had little historical or cultural reason to live under one sovereignty and had few natural resources of comparative advantages to support themselves, were nevertheless forced to do just that; first, under foreign rule, whose main goal - whatever the "civilising mission" proclaimed by Paris - was to extract as much wealth and resources as possible and enforce control by whatever means necessary, then under postcolonial indigenous governments whose policies towards their people often differed little on the ground from their colonial predecessors.

Indeed, even those countries which secured independence peacefully were structurally deformed by foreign rule and the establishment of states with borders that did not naturally correspond to the political and cultural ecologies of the regions in which they were created. As epitomised by the plight of the Mali's Touareg communities (who are spread across the Sahel much like Kurds are spread across the countries of the Fertile Crescent), most states in West, North and Central Africa wound up including significant populations who were different from, and thus disadvantaged by, the group who assumed power. At the same time, post-independence governments were riven by corruption and narrow loyalties, with leaders who were most often unwilling to pursue or incapable of pursuing a truly national, democratic vision of development.

In such a situation, religion, which might have played a positive role in shaping morally grounded public spheres and economies, became marginalised from governance, while slowly taking hold in a toxic form among many of the region's most marginalised peoples.

Supporting the wrong team

If France's colonial history created the structures in which the present crisis inevitably has unfolded, a more recent set of policies constitutes the second circle of blowback; namely, France's unreserved support for the Algerian government in its repression of the democratic transition that began in 1988 and was crushed in 1992. As is well known, rather than allow the Islamic Salvation Front - a Muslim Brotherhood-inspired group not that different in its roots and outlook than its Egyptian or Tunisian mainstream Islamist counterparts - to take power after its clear electoral victory in the first round of the 1991-92 parliamentary elections, the Algerian military cancelled the next round and began a crackdown that quickly exploded into a civil war between the military government and radical Islamist groups.

Faced with the choice of allowing a new, Islamist political actor take the reigns of power, France, joined by the US, chose to support the Algerian military, with whom it had retained close relations. In allying with an authoritarian, brutal and corrupt government the French, and the West more broadly, became party to a vicious conflict that saw the emergence of a dangerous terrorist group, the GIA (Armed Islamic Group), quite possibly controlled at least in part by the military itself, and the subsequent bloody decade-long civil war that cost the lives of well over 100,000 civilians.

The GIA in turn was the kernel out of which another group, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, and then al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghbrib, emerged. These groups focused their attention on North Africa for much of the last decade, but gradually moved more deeply into the Sahelian regions linking Algeria to Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Morocco.

Had France and the West not given unreserved support to the Algerian military, it is highly unlikely that these groups would have been created, never mind grow to their present position (a similar argument could of course be made about the main branch of al-Qaeda, which is so many ways was a direct product of unceasing US support for some of the most corrupt and brutal regimes in the world, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan).

As in so many other cases, France and its Western allies chose stability over democracy. In so doing it inevitably, if ironically, set the stage for the present chaos in which its troops are being forced to fight.

Supporting the wrong team... again

The third and most recent circle of blowback stems from France's longstanding support for Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Specifically, French President Nicolas Sarkozy offered strong support for Ben Ali at the start of the crisis, specifically including , as foreign affairs minister Michèle Alliot-Marie described it, "the savoir-faire, recognised throughout the world of [French] security forces in order to settle security situations of this type". The French president's words embarrassed his government once the protests picked up steam to the point of creating a " crisis of credibility " that necessitated Sarkozy's "admission of mistakes" in supporting Ben Ali against the revolutionaries.

So strong was Sarkozy's embarrassment that when the Libyan crisis erupted, France took the lead in pressing for Western military intervention to force Gaddafi from power in order to absolve itself of its Tunisian sins. Yet it was precisely the launching of NATO's air war and military support for the Libyan rebels that led to the exodus of well-trained fighters and significant weapons stocks from Libya into Niger, Mali and other parts of the Sahel in the wake of the crumbling of Gaddafi's state. The chaos and spread of weapons generated by the Libya war put crucial numbers of men and arms into play in northern Mali at a particularly dangerous moment in the country's history, when long oppressed Touaregs, who'd been recipients of Gaddafi's largesse in the past (and some of whom in fact fought for Gaddafi), were once again primed to rebel against the central government.

This situation became even more ripe for chaos with the unexpected and apparently unintended military coup against the country's soon to be retired president, Amadou Toumani Touré, in March, 2012, which created an even bigger power vacuum throughout the country.

The blowback's blowback

Here we see decades, and indeed centuries, of French and broader European and American policies coming together to produce maximum chaos. This in turn was strengthened by the blowback from longstanding local conflicts, from the hostility of Mali's military leadership to the extremely poor rank and file conscripts (which prompted the protests that sent the President to flight in March, 2012) to the inability of the broader Touareg rebel movement to set aside its tradition of violent resistance and embrace a younger generation of activists, who were advocating a revolutionary movement that was much closer to the soon to erupt Arab Spring than to the violent insurrection for which Touaregs had long been known. Almost a year later, the army has lost control over the majority of the country, while Touaregs have been largely sidelined from the revolt they started by Salafi groups aligned with al-Qaeda.

What is most interesting in this regard is that the present blowback had significant advance warning and should in fact have been anticipated by French and Western policymakers in the planning of the Libyan war. North Africa experts, such as Sciences Po political scientist Jean-Pierre Filiu, were pointing out already in 2010 that al-Qaeda in the Maghrib and other salafi fighting groups were moving away from their focus on Algeria and towards developing a strategic presence, and even " new theatre " in the Sahel, with the ultimate aim of destabilising those countries.

These jihadis "now represent a serious security threat in northern parts of Mali and Niger", Filiu explained, because of numerous kidnappings, smuggling and other illicit activities the recruitment of a "new generation" of fighters from the many poor communities of the region. This reality of clearly increased operation by radical Islamist groups in northern Mali, coupled with the increase in Touareg agitation and Gaddafi's well-known use of various nomadic groups as mercenaries, should have raised loud alarms among French and Western policymakers in the lead up to the decision to enter for Libyan civil war.

Indeed, on the US side, the American Ambassador to Mali warned already in 2004 that Mali is a "remote, tribal and barely governed swath of Africa... a potential new staging ground for religious extremism and terrorism similar to Afghanistan under the Taliban... If Mali goes, the rest goes". This warning was made just as the US military was deepening its military presence across the continent, culminating in the creation of AFRICOM in 2008.

Given the clear attention being paid to the Sahel in the last decade by French and US policymakers, we can only assume that either they were utterly incompetent in failing to understand the inevitable results of Western military intervention in Libya, or saw that as a win-win situation, providing a new theatre in a strategically rising area of the world in which US, French and Western militaries could become increasingly engaged (and in so doing, keep rivals such as China further at bay).

Either way, just as previous African interventions generated the blowback that helped create the present Malian crisis, the present intervention in Mali, however necessary, well-intentioned and even wished for by the majority of Malians (to the extent the wishes of Malians can even be determined that clearly), will no doubt produce its own blowback, which will claim the lives of many more Africans, French, American and other Western citizens.

Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine, and distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh.