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Belmont Club

Sahara

January 16th, 2013 - 3:28 pm

Borders unless enforced by states, are mere lines on a map. Al Arabiya reports “Islamist militants attacked a gas field in Algeria on Wednesday, claiming to have kidnapped up to 41 Westerners including seven Americans in a dawn raid in retaliation for France’s military intervention in Mali, according to regional media reports. ” The War in Mali had crossed over.

The 41 hostages come from 9 or 10 different countries, according to various news outlets, including Americans, French, British, Japanese, Norwegian and Irish.

The international character of things was emphasized as  Nigeria began to send troops to join the French operation in Mali. Nigeria’s army is itself stretched containing the Boko Haram Islamic insurgency to its North. “Many Nigerians inside the government have maintained that Boko Haram has links with international jihad networks, especially al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), one of the leading elements among Mali’s Islamic insurgency. ”

According to the Washington Post, France has requested US help in providing targeting data and airlift capacity to support its operation.

The official was not specific about whether the surveillance being shared with France comes from drones or from satellites.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said: “They’ve asked for support with airlift. They’ve asked for support with aerial refueling. We are already providing information, and we are looking hard today at the airlift question, helping them transport forces from France and from the area into the theater, and also at the refueling question.”

Wasn’t it supposed to be the case that “Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive?”.

Where exactly the US was providing transportation for the French into was described by Anouar Boukhars, a Moroccan academic writing in the New York Times. He basically says the French are being ferried at jet speeds into what amounts to a powderkeg.

The fragile states of the Sahara and just below the desert pose significant challenges — not just for the United States and Europe, but also for the North African states themselves. The sources of their instability and conflict are complex and deeply rooted. Internally, they include institutional weakness and corruption, endemic poverty, sociopolitical tensions, unaddressed identity-based grievances, legacies of past abuses, and religious radicalization. External stresses include transnational organized crime and terrorism, weapons proliferation, foreign meddling, cross-border conflict spillover, and global economic shocks.

Nations in this region are ill equipped to deal with these problems. In fact, in most countries of the Sahel (the belt across Africa, just south of the desert), local governments have exacerbated conflict, either through inept responses or, in some cases, active collusion with criminal networks, Islamist militants, or ethnic dissidents…

Algeria is distrustful of its neighbors, especially the so-called pro-French axis, led by Morocco and the weaker states of the Sahel … If Algeria refuses to engage in the conflict in Mali, then the international community must look for leadership in Morocco, the other North African heavyweight directly affected by the chaos in the Sahel.

The key phrase is “not just for the United States and Europe, but also for the North African states themselves”. Suddenly America is supposed to have a vital interest in the Sahara. If you were wondering: “what does America have to do with Timbuktu”. The answer is “everything”. The world is built around the assumption that the USN will keep the seas free, the USAF will keep the air clear and the Fed will keep banks sound. The Sahara is connected to North Africa. North Africa is connected to France. France is connected to Europe, Europe to the Atlantic and the Atlantic borders on Norfolk, Virginia.  See?

National Geographic had an evocative piece in December 2012 which explains the implicit emotional belief behind this. Its Africa correspondent writes about the night Obama was elected in 2008:

On the November night in 2008 when the United States elected Barack Obama President, I listened to the coverage on a transistor radio on a rooftop in Timbuktu….

As we sat on the roof, I asked Issaka and Mohammed why people in Timbuktu were so excited by Obama. Did they think he would somehow spur development here? Issaka shook his head as if I were dense. “We are excited because it shows the world that America really believes what it says it believes,” he said.

“Even a black-skinned man can be the President. If that is truly possible in America, it makes us ask what is possible in Mali, even in Timbuktu?” Mohammed nodded enthusiastically. …

Trash was piled in pits dug seemingly at random, and the skeletons of large diesel trucks lay half buried in sand drifts, like beasts of burden that had finally collapsed under the desert’s oppressive heat. And yet, even after centuries of decline from its zenith as a wealthy trading hub, Timbuktu in 2008 seemed to be verging on a renaissance of sorts….

Someone was going to take care of Africa. Cart the truck wreckage away. Pick up the trash. And indeed somebody was working in Africa, except in the wrong way.

In February 2011, when the Arab Spring came to Libya, Qaddafi deployed these Tuareg units, first against unarmed protestors and then against the subsequent armed uprising. As his regime disintegrated, thousands of Tuareg, fearful of a backlash, began returning to northern Mali and Niger, putting immense pressure on already impoverished communities. As they left, many Tuareg fighters were able to smuggle weapons out of Libya’s well-stocked armories….

When I saw him in 2011, Hamdoon said he was very worried about what was coming. We met in a hotel just outside Timbuktu’s city limits. Almost no foreigners dared come to the north these days, and its French owner had abandoned the hotel. We sat on chaise lounges next to an empty swimming pool. “You will see, the war is coming to Mali next,” he said gravely.

Hamdoon was right. Obama’s election was a portent of something. It simply wasn’t what he expected.

Last month, on Election Day in the U.S., I called Issaka, who himself had relocated to Bamako. He described how the capital, swollen with refugees from the north, remains tense with uncertainty and rife with rumors.

I reminded him of how Obama’s election had stirred jubilance among Timbuktu residents four years before. He laughed. “That was a long time ago.” But then in a wistful voice added, “We need Obama now more than ever.”

The question is: why should they need Obama more than ever? So he can pull another Libya? So he can work some more of his magic? Hamdoon and Issaka need to get touch with Alan Dershowitz, Ed Koch and Noam Chomsky to form a club. While these individuals may be worlds apart they have a mindset in common: the belief that someone is going to “fix it”.

Nobody’s going to fix it. It doesn’t work that way any more. The old institutions are failing; and what their replacements shall be is not yet evident. Maybe we ought to stop worrying about “too big to fail”. It’s failed already.


The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99

Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99

No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99

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