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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Twin tragedies in North Africa: Reading between the lines

Why the people in Mali and Algeria and the truth about Western engagement there are casualties of the latest developments

(First published in Foreign Policy Journal on January 30, 2013)

The brazen attack on the Amenas gas field in Algeria by the militants has come to a bloody end. Meanwhile the French adventure to crush the allegedly Jihadist rebellion in the neighboring Mali is in full swing. An effort to pursue and eliminate the culprits behind each of the troubles can only be welcome because, after all, lives and property are dear to everyone. So, we should pray for the success of the Algerian regime and the French-Malian marriage so that the culprits in both countries can be crushed and everyone can breathe a sigh of relief. That is what the worldwide coverage of the two developments suggests.
But is that all that matters in each case? More specifically, who is the real culprit behind the tragic developments? At first glance, the armed rebels in both countries look to be the incontrovertible culprits. The bulk of coverage across the world reinforces this view. The trouble is, even a small attempt to read between the lines of the coverage in each case makes us question the whole narrative of letting French-Malian-Algerian regimes sort out the issues.
You are deaf and illiterate if you didn’t hear or read about the tragedy that unfolded in Amenas where scores of foreign workers were brutally killed by the rebels. But what you most likely missed is the tragic suffering of millions of Malians resulting from the renewed wave of violence that has become the excuse for brazen military intervention by the former colonists. What even fewer of us are aware of is the fact that the avalanche of disasters in Mali was triggered by the March 22 coup led by US-trained army captain Amadou Sanogo. As early as in August 2, well before the current French adventure in Mali, the reputed analyst Ramzy Baroud has impeccably argued how the chain of events in Mali were likely to culminate in foreign (American or French) military intervention.
Coming to the real motive of the French intervention in Mali, Seumas Milne makes convincing arguments in this article in The Guardian:
France is in any case the last country to sort out Mali’s problems, having created quite a few of them in the first place as the former colonial power, including the legacy of ethnic schism within artificial borders – as Britain did elsewhere. The French may have been invited in by the Malian government. But it’s a government brought to power by military coup last year, not one elected by Malians – and whose troops are now trading atrocities and human rights abuses with the rebels.
Further, the statement of the French president Hollande that his country will be in Mali as long as it takes to “defeat terrorism in that part of Africa” is also worth reading between the lines. Even the analysts in the mainstream media who have not lost touch with reality agree that most other military interventions in the past, while rhetorically aimed to annihilate the terrorists, have only yielded the opposite results. The phrase ‘as long as it takes’ in the sentence assumes even more significance in the present context. If the triumph of feuding rebel groups in Malian cities and villages (many of which are ragtag compared to well-equipped French army and the whole insurgency in the region was catalyzed by the French-led ouster of Gaddhafi in Libya through ‘humanitarian bombing’) can open the conduit for long term military presence in this strategically important continent, how could the French resist the temptation to stay there as long as possible?

While reacting to the Algerian tragedy, British PM David Cameron has also made some interesting comments. He has claimed that, with the brazen attacks, Al-Qaeda wanted to destroy ‘our way of life’ thereby implying that the attack somehow posed a threat to Britain.

Algerian attack plausibly poses a threat to the interest of Britain not least because BP is one of the operators of the facility. The assertion about the attack posing a threat to the ‘British way of life’ is, however more curious and nuanced. One could never be sure which of the many links between the British (or for that matter, European) way of life and the attack in the gas field Cameron had in mind while uttering those words. But he has left ample space for debate and discussion. Was it the fact that average per capita energy consumption in Britain is nearly three times that in Algeria (or, for that matter, nearly 10 times that in countries like Nepal) which is also forced to suffer the collective devastation of biosphere caused by excessive use of fossil fuels?

The second connotation of Cameron’s ‘way of life’ could be more indirect but with more historical standing. Al-Qaeda, its splinter groups, or any other militants in the region could be easily linked to religious extremism, but they are more a result of geopolitical power plays and rivalry, as with the prototypical rise of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Even today, Al-Qaeda and the European backers of rebels in Syria, including France and Britain, are in the same side of widening conflict. And reportedly, the weapons supplied by France and Britain to the rebels in Libya were among those used in the Amenas attack. Rather than some deranged terrorists recklessly aiming to destroy the British way of life, the chain of events show that- the attack was related to the quasi-colonial nature of energy extraction ventures that is nearly uniform everywhere in the world. Despite the unacceptability of violence (that often yields opposite of what is stated as intended), the insistence of the attackers that their action was taken in response to ‘France’s operation in Mali, Algeria’s decision to open its airspace to the French and western looting of the country’s natural resources’ links the attacks to the larger developments in the region.

Coming to why this attack by Al-Qaeda or the other like-minded militants could have intended to precisely destroy the ‘British way of life’, a historical thread can be linked. The French cousins of the Brits (who are now in a grand mission to ‘liberate’ Mali from the clutches of the Jihadis) had to accept the independence of Algeria in 1962 after a protracted war of independence that lasted for 8 years and resulted in an estimated death of between 0.3 and 1 million Algerians (which was the culmination of 132 years long French occupation of Algeria). While the British Empire was receding from the erstwhile colonies in a similar fashion after the WWII, the way of life in France and Britain then was similar and remains so to date. The way of life of the colonized people who suffered outright subjugation and plundering of the resources, too, was similar then and remains so, albeit with some exceptions. In fact, the way of life at the top and the bottom of the global power hierarchy has never been similar in the past, nor is it so in the present, and there are no prospects of it ever being so in the future.

The only change that has taken place over the past century is that, if it were the visible military power that rampaged across continents to claim everything it could lay its hands on in the past, it is now the invisible power of capital and technological know-how that makes it possible to maintain the distance between the two ways of life in the global north and global south. Cameron’s allusion that the attack on a facility in African deserts by some well-equipped militants threatened to destroy the ‘way of life’ (of Brits, Europeans, Westerners or the people in the global north, whichever way it is understood) is, in a way, a sober acknowledgment that the profligate life style of the global north (that obviously involves profligate energy consumption) can no longer be taken for granted. Significantly, more important than the amount of gas or oil supplied by a particular British company from a particular facility is the amount of wealth contributed to the British coffers by the companies like BP that can be used to fund innumerable ways of profligate consumption for the Brits. This big link between the fortunes of BP and the ‘way of life’ of the Brits must be behind the Cameron’s sobering remarks.

Coming to the third explanation of why Cameron could have juxtaposed the two things, one cannot resist the temptation of calling him a hypocrite. If it were not for the militants as in Algeria or Mali, the role France, the UK or for that matter the US- could play in those countries would have been much more limited. Rather any militant activity (and preferably the religious extremist activity) in any corner of the world today forms the most convenient scapegoat for military adventures that are primarily intended for more clandestine and unjust objectives of the dominant powers. Any keen observer of world events (who is not naive enough to buy the lopsided arguments of most mainstream media outlets about the wars and militancy in the world) can easily see that the attack in Amenas does not have even the remotest possibility of denting the British interests in Algeria. Instead, Britain has now the convenient excuse of acting more forcibly and sinisterly in coordination with the Algerian regime to subdue the militancy in Algeria, or at least to shield facilities of its interest from them. If history is any clue, the aftermath of the attack is likely to preserve and further promote the interests of BP in Algeria thereby not ‘destroying’ but ‘propping up’ the way of life Cameron alludes.

Cameron is honest to the extent of linking the attacks in Amenas with the western way of life. But even if the attackers or their mastermind had dreamed to destroy the Western way of life through the attack, that is the last thing to happen if ever because any armed retribution to the western interests is doomed to fail so long as the discrepancy in terms of military might of the warring side remains so tantalizing. Hollande is similarly honest to the extent of expressing the desire of France to remain in Mali ‘as long as it takes’ but blatantly dishonest while stating the objectives of the intervention as ‘defeating terrorism’.

Meanwhile there have been the twin casualties of the whole North African mess: first are the people in the region whose poverty and misery is sure to be worsened with renewed wave of violence; the other is, of course, the truth about why global powers bother to make their presence felt in hinterlands of countries like Algeria and Mali. As always, the mainstream media rallies behind the executives of two of the most powerful countries outside America even when they say something while connoting something else. To borrow Chomsky’s words, both are colluding in a project to manufacture consent; a consent that is guided by interests of the dominant world powers rather than by an attempt to tell the truth.

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