After the beginning of the War on Terror and the practical annihilation of Al Qaeda assets in Afghanistan, few expected militant Salafism to rise again. But simple ideas are the most resilient and Obama bin Laden’s legacy resurged in Yemen and the Maghreb. The locales are indicative of the most peripheral rural populations being the most vulnerable to extreme militancy.
With this in mind, the Americans devised the concept of “ungoverned spaces” and financed the Pan Sahel Initiative in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks aimed at training local regimes and their armed forces as well as installing surveillance mechanisms for the region. The aim was to prevent groups such as Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC) from being allowed unchecked use of the Sahara and Sahel regions for sanctuary. This initiative was first and foremost prescient — the GSPC shifting into Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb in 2007 — but for the most part successful as no regime was ever subverted or threatened in a meaningful way by extremists. On the other hand, by no means was this initiative ambitious enough to eradicate the same groups.
The United States have seen its prerogatives being facilitated by essentially Morocco and Tunisia.
France, in its turn, exercises considerable influence in Burkina-Faso, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali and Morocco and wields significant regional power through a network of interests inherited from the French colonial empire designated as Françafrique.
China and Russia certainly enjoy the same benefits as for example Libya from spoiling Western influence but their game is different as they stand to gain more by replacing Western external patrons in the Maghreb and West Africa.
Unlike Libya, Iran or Venezuela, whose actions are almost entirely ideological and revisionist, Beijing and Moscow have legitimate interests in seeing the Americans and Europeans weakened in the region since they have markets and products to offer as alternatives. The two are rivals to the West whereas the anti-Westerners are purely gratuitous spoilers. This is why China and Russia have been known to cooperate closely with such regional hegemons as Algeria, given that a more independent Maghreb would most certainly still rely on external partners but not so much as to warrant intervention from those partners — unsuitable for China and Russia which are too distant to be able to offer it.
Regional underdogs, on the other hand, prefer external interventionists to regional rivals since allegiance to outsiders is perceived as preferable to submission to regional insiders.
Libya has not succeeded in ridding Françafrique from France but it has succeeded in undermining French influence. By working in parallel with such forces as Iran and Venezuela, Muammar Gaddafi’s regime offered an alternative to France and the West. In countries as Mauritania, it was not enough to do away with French and Western interests altogether but by enjoying more independence, countries in West Africa are able to lessen their reliance on the West and negotiate from a position of enhanced strength.
The effort against desert dwelling jihadists therefore is seen positively in the West but suspiciously in the East and with ambivalence in the region itself. Libya was a sponsor of likeminded movements and terrorist organizations throughout the Cold War but after 1989, it realized that it needed Western investment and that the groups which it sponsored were too radical and utopian to ever offer a credible governance alternative. Moreover, these movements were so radical they would turn on the hands that fed them. Gaddafi struggled with his own jihadists foes even before September 11.
Why then the Libyan regime change? France essentially did in Libya what Germany and Austria had done in the Western Balkans: it enlisted American idealism in the prosecution of national interests. By moving against Gaddafi, the French were able to rid Françafrique of a dangerous regional influence that threatened their military bases and the euro pegged CFA franc. Gaddafi’s Libya had for years sponsored armed groups and political elites across French-speaking Africa and with him gone, so would his influence. Libyan involvement in Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Sudan was eliminated in one swoop.
In addition, with the new Libyan elites owing their ascent to power to France, Paris stands to profit from a new pro-Western Libya in a way that directly damages the interests of Beijing and Moscow but most of all of Berlin and Rome.
It is debatable how much logic went into President Nicolas Sarkozy’s decision to seize the opportunity of the Libyan uprising and go to war, or at least how much foreign policy and domestic politics respectively weighed in the decision, but the fact remains that the intervention was extremely useful for his country.
As with any political earthquake, the aftershocks are unpredictable and Mali was certainly one of them. France has been Mali’s patron for long and wished no harm to come to the regime but the vacuum of power in Libya left much of its considerable arsenal loose and many of its less centralized ethnicities free to pursue their own ends. The Tuareg had for long claimed a homeland of their own and together with fleeing militant Islamists from Libya, they moved quickly to make use of the changed balance of power.
Azawad in northern Mali was quickly overrun by the much better armed nomads and seceded from Mali’s non-Arab control. Even worse is the apparent upper hand that the jihadist Arabs of Ansar Dine have in the meantime established on the ground.
France and the West are now confronted with the need to support the Tuareg against Ansar Dine and thus further cement the secession of Azawad.
But just as Henry IV said that “Paris is well worth a Mass,” so too should the West and the French admit that Libya is well worth Azawad.