France’s military intervention into Mali, with varying degrees of British and American support, to save its former colony from an Islamist rebel takeover could easily escalate into an unmanageable situation and cost a lot of blood and treasure. Violent African-based groups are not easily tamed.
The three Western allies fear Mali could become a new hub for al Qaeda-style global terrorism, and some want to stop it, regardless of cost and time. It would behoove them to examine some basic facts and problems before continuing such a risky endeavor in Africa.
First, they need to fully grasp the growing influence of Islam, which produces al Qaeda movement operatives and sympathizers among its extreme practitioners. Muslims comprise about 42 percent of the population of Africa (464 million of 1.1 billion people). They represent a heavy presence in 38 of 54 countries (10 percent or more of the population). Moreover, 27 African nations, including Mali, are Organization of Islamic Cooperation members — a group promoting Islam, Islamic interests and Shariah law. Mali’s 15.5 million people are 90 percent Muslim.
Second, the allies must be able to distinguish Islamists and jihadists from the overall Muslim population. An Islamist is any Muslim who wants to impose and enforce Shariah — whether by violent or nonviolent means. A jihadist is an Islamist terrorist. The Muslim Brotherhood, which gestates Islamists, have succeeded in taking over Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, using mostly nonviolent means to create Shariah-compliant constitutions. Islamist terrorists — like al Qaeda affiliates Ansar al Shariah (Partisans of Islamic Law), Katibat Moulathamine (The Masked Brigade) and Ansar Dine (Helpers of the Islamic Religion), which attacked the American mission in Benghazi, assaulted the Algerian gas plant and helped take over northern Mali, respectively — use violent means to install and enforce Shariah.
Third, the allies need to understand Shariah law. Shariah totally subordinates women and mandates many other human rights violations, such as relegating non-Muslim minorities to a much lower legal status than Muslims and dispensing cruel and unusual punishment. It also rejects freedom of speech and conscience and mandates aggressive jihad until the world is brought under Islamic hegemony.
Fourth, the allies must learn as much as possible about Mali and its civil war. The war mostly pits northern Muslim Tuareg desert nomads and stateless Ansar Dine jihadists who served as Moammar Gadhafi mercenaries in Libya against southern, poorly equipped and trained Muslim military troops from the savannah. French troops and warplanes entered the war on the side of Malian troops, who had several months earlier overthrown Mali’s duly elected government, once considered a model African democracy.
The fifth thing for the allies to be aware of is the nation-building trap. The United Nations and other organizations will expect the allies to rebuild Mali’s political, economic, educational and social institutions once their military mission is complete. This will be an enormous undertaking. The Malian life span averages 53 years, 69 percent of the population can’t read and write, the average annual income is $1,100, and the civil war has already displaced more than a quarter-million residents and worsened a drought-driven food shortage expected to impact 13 million people.
Sixth, the allies need to understand that many African countries are prone to civil wars, genocide, anarchy and political upheavals. Former colonial powers entering Africa for military purposes could trigger more continental violence. Angola, Burundi, Congo, Liberia, Libya, Mozambique, Rwanda, Somalia and Sudan exemplify the madness that has killed and displaced tens of millions in recent decades, fueled as much by racial, ethnic or religious animosities as by ideological fervor and hatred of former colonial masters.
Seventh, since the 1950s, Western countries have poured more than $1 trillion of aid into African humanitarian projects with little success. The average African life span is 54 years, the average annual income is $2,900, and the literacy rate is 58 percent — compared with the rest of the world’s 71-year average life span, $13,763 per capita gross domestic product, and 89 percent reading and writing proficiency. Additionally, Freedom House’s 2013 annual report reveals that only 110 million of Africa’s 1.1 billion residents enjoy full freedom.
Finally, hostile African leaders, like Zimbabwe’s dictator-for-life Robert Mugabe, harbor deep resentment toward the United States and former colonial rulers. They can easily whip up African opposition against Western military interventions and antiterrorism policies.
Any Western-led military foray into Africa is fraught with danger. The allies’ Libyan military misadventure set off a deadly chain of events, causing calamities in Libya as well as Mali and Algeria. Prime responsibility for Mali peacemaking, peacekeeping and nation-building should rest with the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States and the United Nations — not France, Great Britain or the United States.
Fred Gedrich served in the U.S. departments of State and Defense, and is a foreign policy and national security analyst. He has traveled extensively in Africa.