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The Iconoclast of Timbuktu

Nobody got punished for blowing up the giant Buddhist statues in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley in 2001. Nobody has been sent to jail for blowing up much of the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria after ISIS captured it in May 2015. (It was recaptured last March.) But Ahmed al-Mahdi is going to jail for a long time for destroying the religious monuments of Timbuktu, and he even says he’s sorry.

Appearing befor the International Criminal Court in The Hague on Monday, the former junior civil servant in Mali’s department of education said “All the charges brought against me are accurate and correct. I am really sorry, and I regret all the damage that my actions have caused.”

He caused a lot of damage. Timbuktu is a remote desert outpost now, with fewer residents than the 25,000 students who thronged its famous Islamic university in its golden age in the 16th century. Its ancient mosques and monuments are of such historical value that they have earned Timbuktu (like Banmiyan and Palmyra) a UNESCO designation as a World Heritage Site.

Timbuktu’s greatest treasure was its tens of thousands of manuscripts dating from the 12th to the 16th centuries, which dealt with topics as diverse as literature, women’s rights, music, philosophy, and good business practice

When Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) stormed into Timbuktu in 2012, the heroic librarian Abdel Kader Haidara saved 95 percent of the city’s manuscripts by smuggling them out to Bamako, Mali’s capital, by car and boat. But the mosques and the mausoleums could not be moved, and Ahmed al-Mahdi was recruited to head the “morality police”. One of his jobs was smashing the ones that were “idolatrous”.

Al-Mahdi, born near Timbuktu, was already a follower of Wahhabism, an austere Islamic sect of Saudi Arabian origin that condemns ordinary people’s reverence for ancient mausoleums and religious shrines as idolatry. So to protect people from sin, historic buildings, tombs, etc. must be destroyed. (Back home, the Wahhabis have pretty well finished the job in Mecca by now.)

AQIM, like ISIS and the Taliban, is “Salafi” in its beliefs, but Salafism is essentially an offspring of Wahhabism with added extremism. So Ahmed al-Mahdi was an obvious recruit for AQIM, and he threw himself into his new job with enthusiasm. He is charged with destroying nine mausoleums and part of one mosque, but he almost certainly vandalised many more.

Malian and French troops drove AQIM out of Timbuktu in 2013, and al-Mahdi was captured shortly afterwards. As head of the morality police he supervised the whipping of smokers, drinkers and “impure” women, the stoning of adulterers, and the execution of “apostates” – but the charge that the International Criminal Court chose to bring against him was “destroying cultural heritage.”

This is a first for the ICC, the world’s permanent war crimes court. Its previous cases have all involved illegal violence against people. This case is about violence against things.

Even if they are things sacred to many people, some critics worry that expanding the category of war crimes in this way undermines the unique status of torture, murder and genocide as crimes so terrible that they require international action if local courts cannot deal with them. Mali requested that the case against al-Mahdi be transferred to the ICC, but the question still begs an answer.

You won’t get it from al-Mahdi, who just wants to apologise: “I ask forgiveness (from the people of Timbuktu), and I ask them to look at me as a son who lost his way.” Maybe he means it, and maybe it’s just a plea bargain. (The prosecutor is only asking for a prison sentence of 9-11 years, although the maximum penalty is 30 years.) But whether his contrition is genuine is not really the question.

It’s a very old crime. Gangs of Christian monks (the original iconoclasts) hacked the noses off every “pagan” statue they could find in 4th-century Egypt. Catholic missionaries in 16th century Mexico supervised the burning of thousands of illustrated books containing the history and mythology of the pre-Columbian civilisations: fewer than twenty survive.

The Islamist vandals of today belong to a long tradition, and none of their predecessors was punished. So is the ICC of today just picking on Muslims?

No. Genocide was only defined and made illegal by the Nuremburg trials in 1945-46, although history is full of other genocides. But the world was not picking on Germans. We had just reached a point in our history when we could finally agree that genocide was always and everywhere a crime against humanity.

Making the act of deliberately “destroying cultural heritage” a crime is another, lesser step in the same process of building a body of international human rights law that applies to everybody. Al-Mahdi just happened to come along at what was, for him, the wrong time.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 11. (“You…question”)

Victory in Mali?

30 January 2013

Victory in Mali?

By Gwynne Dyer

As usual, a well-trained Western army has gone through a fierce-looking but virtually untrained force of African rebels like a hot knife through butter. Two weeks ago, the northern half of Mali was entirely under the control of Islamist militants, whose forces were starting to advance into southern Mali as well. So France decided on very short notice to send troops and combat aircraft to its former colony in West Africa.

Today, every town in the north of Mali is under French control, and the surviving rebels have fled into the desert. But most of them did survive: after losing a couple of major clashes in the first days of the French drive northwards, the Islamist forces simply abandoned Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal, the main towns of the north, as soon as the French forces came near. The easy part of the intervention is now over.

It’s not surprising that the French military intervention was an instant success. The Islamist rebels, like most African paramilitaries (and quite a few African armies, too), did not even know the basic combat drills that every infantryman in a Western army has practised until they are second nature. But now come three tasks that are considerably more difficult.

The first is to deploy an African Union-backed military force, made up of units from armies elsewhere in West Africa, to take over from the French. You can’t just hand the recaptured towns back to Mali’s own army, which is so incompetent and rotted by politics that it would promptly lose them back to the militants.

This force, dubbed the International Support Mission to Mali, has the unanimous blessing of the United Nations Security Council. International donors met in Ethiopia on Tuesday and pledged $455.53 million to pay for this force. Mali’s many neighbours – it has open desert borders with seven other West African countries – have already identified the units they are going to send.

But it’s going to be weeks or months before those African units actually arrive, because many of them aren’t very well trained either. (French and British troops are being sent to train some of them before they even set foot in Mali.) In the meantime, the north of Mali will really be entirely under French military rule.

This means that there will be none of the looting, rape and murder that tends to follow the Malian army’s arrival in town, but the French troops are very foreign indeed. They are not even Muslims, in a country that is nine-tenths Muslim. They were welcomed as liberators when they rolled into the northern towns in the last few days, but if they stay for too long they will become first unpopular, and then hated. That’s just the way things work.

Once African troops replace the French, the next task is to rebuild the democratic government of Mali, which was destroyed by a military coup last March. The interim president, Dioncounda Traore, says that he wants to hold elections next July, but behind the scenes the greedy young officers who made the coup still hold the real power. They will have to be sent back to their barracks before elections take place, and that will not be easy.

And the third task is to win the very different kind of war that starts in Mali now. Retaking occupied towns was easy. Now that the militants have scattered across the vast deserts of northern Mali, they will launch a different kind of war – a “war of the shadows”, conducted by raids, bomb attacks and assassinations.

Countries can survive for decades with that kind of low-intensity war going on in the background, but the only way to shrink it to a manageable level is to make a political deal. This is not impossible in Mali, because the Islamist fanatics actually hijacked the revolution from their former allies, the Tuareg separatists.

Most of the people in the north are Tuaregs, desert-dwelling people of Berber stock and nomadic heritage who are ethnically, culturally and linguistically distinct from the black African majority in southern Mali. Many of them support the separatist movement that wanted to create an independent Tuareg state in northern Mali, but few actually share the extreme religious views of the Islamist militants.

The two groups made an alliance to drive the Malian army out of the north, but the Islamists then turned on their allies and seized absolute power for themselves. Their harsh rule was resented by most people, however, and so it should be possible to isolate the Islamists if the Malian government is willing to make a deal that gets the Tuareg separatists on its side.

They won’t get independence, but they would probably settle for a large degree of autonomy for the north. It will be hard to get a new Malian government that is elected almost entirely by the votes of southerners (90 percent of the population lives in the south) to make that concession, but the alternative is a long, draining guerilla war in the north.

Was the French military intervention in Mali necessary? Yes, in the view of the United Nations, the African Union, and most Malians. Was it a success? That remains to be seen.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“But it’s…work”)

 

 

 

Mali Intervention

14 January 2013

Mali Intervention

By Gwynne Dyer

“Those days are over,” said Frances President Francois Hollande last month, when asked if French forces would intervene in the war between Islamist insurgents who have seized the northern half of Mali and the government in Bamako. But the days in question weren’t over for very long. Last Friday France sent a squadron of fighter-bombers to the West African country to stop the Islamist fighters from taking the capital.

“We are making air raids the whole time,” said French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. “They are going on now. They will go on tonight. They will go on tomorrow.” Some 550 French combat troops are on the ground already, with up to 2,500 more to follow. Contingents of soldiers from the neighbouring countries of Nigeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, Niger and Togo are scheduled to arrive as early as next week. It has turned into a real war.

It has also turned into a Western-run war in a Muslim country, despite the discouraging precedents of Afghanistan and Iraq. The government of Mali has asked for French help, and on Monday the United Nations Security Council unanimously supported France’s military intervention. The army of Mali, such as it is, will theoretically be in charge of the war – but everybody knows that the Malian army is useless.

In fact, the presence of Mali’s army at the front is usually counter-productive, as it is brutal, militarily incompetent, and prone to panic flight. The other African armies are of variable quality, but it is obviously French troops, and especially French air power, that will decide the outcome of the war. So has France bitten off more than it can chew? Is this going to end up like Afghanistan and Iraq?

The supporters of the war prefer to compare it with last year’s Western military intervention in Libya, another French initiative that was decided over one weekend. They like that analogy better because the Libyan intervention ended tolerably well, with the overthrow of the dictator, a democratically elected government, and no Western casualties. But the differences between Libya and Mali are greater than the similarities.

In Libya the rebels were trying to rid the country of Muammar Gaddafi, a loony, friendless dictator, and create a democratic future. The decision to intervene was made in Paris in only two hectic days, when it appeared that Gaddafi’s mercenary troops were about to overrun Benghazi and massacre the rebels. NATO served as the rebel air force, but no Western troops fought on the ground. And it worked.

With Mali, once again it was decided in a couple of days, and once again France has taken the lead. Once again Britain is sending some help as well (transport aircraft, but no troops or combat aircraft), and the United States is providing discreet logistical support. (US Air Force tankers refuelled the French fighters on their way to Mali.) But that’s where the similarities end.

The West is supporting the government, not the rebels, in Mali. That government, behind a flimsy civilian facade, is controlled by the same thugs in uniform whose military coup last March, just one month before the scheduled democratic election, created the chaos that let the Islamist rebels conquer the northern half of the country. The young officers who now run the country are ignorant and violent, and having them on your side is not an asset.

The Islamist rebels are fanatical, intolerant, and violent, but they are well armed (a lot of advanced infantry weapons came on the market when Gaddafi’s regime collapsed) and they appear to be well trained. They have almost no popular support in 90-percent-Muslim Mali, whose version of Islam is much more moderate, but they have terrified the population of the north into submission or flight.

The insurgents are not short of money, either, as they receive secret subsidies from several Arab monarchies in the Gulf that have persuaded themselves, strangely, that subsidising radical Islamist movements in the far-flung fringes of the Muslim world is a good way to avoid being overthrown by radical Islamists at home. They are formidable opponents, and the war to free northern Mali may be long and hard.

Until recently the rebels seemed to be confined to Mali’s desert north, but last week they began to advance into southern Mali, where nine-tenths of the country’s 14 million people live. The Malian army collapsed, and Western intelligence sources estimated that the Islamists would capture the capital, Bamako, within two days. That would effectively give them control of the entire country.

Mali has long, unguarded borders with seven other African countries, and it is only 3,000 km. (2,000 mi.) from France. So President Hollande ordered immediate military intervention to stop the Islamist advance, and we’ll all worry about the long-term consequences later. The next Western war against Islamist extremists has already started, and the question is whether it will end up like Afghanistan.

Nobody would like to know the answer to that more than the French. Except, of course, the Malians.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 10. (“With…end”; and “The insurgents…hard”)

 

 

The Coming War in Mali

1 December 2012

The Coming War in Mali

By Gwynne Dyer

You probably haven’t given much thought to the problems in Mali, but United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has, and his advice on military intervention in that West African country could be summed up in two words: forget it. Although, being a diplomat, he actually used a great many more words than that.

Mali’s 14 million people are almost all Muslims, but there is a deep ethnic divide between the black African majority in the southern half of the country and the Tuaregs (only 10 percent of the population) who dominate the desert northern half. Last March, a military coup in the capital, Bamako, distracted the Malian army long enough for Tuareg separatists to seize control of the entire north.

The Tuareg separatists had been in business for many years, but an influx of weapons and fighters from Libya after the fall of the Gaddafi regime gave them a new impetus. Having driven government troops out of the north and declared the independent nation of Azawad, however, the separatists were then rapidly pushed aside by Islamic extremists who declared a jihad against practically everybody.

A military coup in a West African nation, even if the government then lost control of half the country to separatists, would normally be of interest only to other West African states. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) might back military intervention to reunite the country, or it might not, but the rest of the world would ignore it. Not this time.

What set alarms bells ringing in the United States and Europe was the fact that al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) is a major force in the alliance of Islamist fundamentalists that now controls northern Mali. The mere mention of al-Qaeda sets Western governments salivating like Pavlov’s dogs, and the issue of reconquering northern Mali suddenly got onto the international agenda.

Western countries have been pushing for a UN Security Council resolution authorising military action against the rebels for months, and in October they got their way. The resolution gave regional leaders 45 days to provide plans for an international military intervention to oust the rebels in northern Mali, and the US government recently said that war was now “inevitable”.

At that point Ban Ki-Moon wrote his letter to the Security Council condemning the rush to military action: “I am profoundly aware that if a military intervention in the north is not well conceived and executed, it could worsen an already fragile humanitarian situation and also result in severe human rights abuses. Fundamental questions on how the force would be led, sustained, trained, equipped and financed remain unanswered.”

“A military operation may be required as a last resort to deal with the most hardline extremists and criminal elements in the north,” Ban conceded, “but before that stage is reached, the focus must be on initiating a broad-based and inclusive national dialogue…” Diplomatic buzz-words, certainly, but he is fighting for time and that’s all he has.

But US drones are already overflying northern Mali on a daily basis. US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has refused to rule out direct American support for training or other operations on the ground in Mali. A real war will soon start in Mali.

It would involve the same kind of UN intervention force that has been fighting the Islamist al-Shabab militia in Somalia: African countries provide the troops, and Western countries cover the costs. But whereas the Ugandan, Kenyan and Burundian armies that are doing the heavy lifting in Somalia are reasonably competent soldiers, the West African armies that would provide the troops in Mali are not.

Take the biggest army in the region, for example. As a senior Malian official told The Guardian newspaper last month, “The Nigerian army is in a shocking state. There is no way they are capable of forward operations in Mali…The Nigerian forces lack training and kit, so they simply don’t have the capability to carry out even basic military manoeuvres. They have poor discipline and support.”

So who will pick up the pieces if the ECOWAS force, already unpopular in Mali, fails to recover the north? Probably Western troops, but that would trigger powerful anti-Western reactions all over Africa. It might produce a military victory and reunify Mali by force, but it would be a political disaster. The extremists could not hope for a better recruiting tool.

This whole operation is being driven by a reflex panic about terrorism. But northern Mali is a very long way from anywhere else, and there are no flights out.

The better approach would be to wait for the rebels in the north to fall out and start fighting one another, which they probably will. Meanwhile, train and equip Mali’s own army for the task of retaking the north by force, if that ever becomes necessary, although the fact that it is currently run by the turbulent and ignorant junior officers who made last March’s disastrous coup certainly doesn’t help.

Still, Ban Ki-Moon is right. Sometimes the best thing to do is as little as possible.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 11. (“A military…has”; and “Take…support”)