Military Geography and Mali: the Afghanistan-effect

There’s one good thing about international crises of the day, they always provide good fodder for blog posts, particularly those blogs concentrating on Geography. Foreign Policy seems to allow almost anyone to write a guest column and I always find myself commenting on it. If anyone at Foreign Policy should happen across this blog, I hereby volunteer myself to write! I’ve discussed Mali twice now, first in general terms of the organic state concept, and then again to discuss the Council on Foreign Relations’ view of the Malian situation (with the requisite plug for organic state).

A recent article from FP (on Mali) boldly states that “Mali is not a Stan”. For those not in the know, a ‘Stan, is what the kids these days call the Central Asian republics – Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Dagestan, Uighurstan – you know predominantly Islamic in religious orientation, fairly poor economically (Kazakhstan doing somewhat better), and with a bit of a problem with radical Islamist militancy. Let me be clear here: Islamism is not Islam, the -ism is a political ideology based on the religion that is the latter. So when I say radical Islamist militancy, I’m talking about violent militants espousing the idea of a state structured on Islamic principles. Typically the stated way to get to this state is to overthrow the current one, violently. Of course, who gets to decide what principles are “acceptable” in this new state is usually decided by the militant with the biggest gun. Go figure. So in FP’s view, Mali is not a predominantly Islamic, economically poor state with bit of a problem with radical Islamist militants. Curious. As the most cursory search engine research engine will tell you – 90% of Malians claim to be Islamic, the economy is in shambles (like the state), and there is most definitely a problem with violent Islamists. But to FP’s credit, Mali is most definitely not in Central Asia.

Mali in West Africa (via NatGeo)

What they actually meant is that Mali is not AfghaniSTAN, or more accurately that Mali isn’t a place where France will bogged down, like the U.S. did in Afghanistan. The first piece of evidence offered is that Mali has some history of centralized rule, unlike Afghanistan. The prime example of this? The Malian Empire which lasted about 300 years, from the 13th to 16th centuries. If we’re playing the “I-had-an-ancient-empire” game than Afghanistan had at least one too, the Ghaznavid dynasty, granted they were Turkic and Persianized, but they ruled from Ghazni, Afghanistan. In addition, the Ghaznavid’s empire was several times larger than the Mali Empire. Maintaining an empire over increasing distances implies some degree of centralization, though admittedly there is also a good chance of decentralization as inefficiencies develop (an organic state model would be useful in depicting this, I really need to do this!). And there’s a more glaring problem with FP’s assertion, the Mali Empire didn’t even stretch in the area of Mali that is home to the Tuareg tribes and violent Islamists today, check out the map below. So while there may be “some history” of centralized power in Mali, the prime case didn’t even include the vast northern reaches of the country. Though it’s topographically dominated by sand dunes, people still live, work, and make their homes there.

the Mali Empire, ca. 1350 (via wikipedia)

The second piece of evidence is that France supposedly has a deep knowledge of the country and that they are “practically drowning” in expertise, thanks to their colonial history. On top of this “most educated Malians still speak French” making “it much easier for French forces to relate to average Malians.” This last sentence doesn’t even make sense. Most educated Malians speak French, therefore French forces can relate to average Malians? According to Ethnologue, a generally reliable source of data, a whopping 9,000 French speakers exist in Mali (I actually find that hard to believe), based on 1993 data. Perhaps this is the number of speakers of near-native French proficiency, French is taught in school and is the official language but Bambara is the most widely understood (and I bet the French troops aren’t speaking Bambara). And then there’s the colonial legacy of “expertise” I’m sure the French were “drowning” in expertise with respect to Algeria and Vietnam, both countries they had colonized, both countries experienced anti-colonial revolutions, and both earned their independence (in addition to two others:  Laos and Cambodia). In fact, I would argue that having a colonial history with a place probably results in chauvinistic attitudes, especially when the former colonizers are confronting what they consider to be “backwards,” “uneducated,” “tribal,” guerrillas.

Third, FP asserts that Mali isn’t Afghanistan because ethnicity isn’t the same basis of contention that it is in Afghanistan. Rather, differing interpretations of Islam is the most interesting “social dynamic”. And, absurdly, FP states that “there is no neighboring state or individuals in that state who share militants’ ethnicity and have the backing of elements of a hostile spy agency.” First, the Tuareg’s range is FAR beyond Mali’s borders encompassing Algeria, Libya, Niger, and Burkina Faso. Of course, I’m not privy to whether or not the Tuareg militants are back by a spies, but do they need to be? With most of Africa now awash with small-arms any movement (not just violent Islamist ones) could acquire weaponry at very modest prices. More importantly, FP’s framework for religion and ethnicity is completely monolithic. To FP, ethnicity and religion are separate identities, this is erroneous. Ethnicity and religion have been, and will probably always be, linked. The reason is that these are aspects of a person’s identity. Academics often speak of a person’s “multiple” identities and this is probably the reason for the confusion. Rather, each of us has one identity with roots in a social communities. One person may be Irish and another person English, but another aspect of their identity could be religious: Catholic, Anglican, Muslim, Zoroastrian Another aspect could be sexual orientation, language, gender, social class, education, and any number of “observable” social markers. Which one is “most important” to an individual, to an organization, or to a “nation” is difficult to predict and varies based on who you talk to, when you talk to them, and who you are. Ultimately, all aspects of an individual’s identity do matter because organizations and movements largely form around one or two aspects in order to not only delimit membership in the group but also to make inclusive of as many people as possible. By the same token, these movements and organizations adapt which part of the identity is emphasized based on the needs of the movement. Attributing a conflict to one aspect of identity is dangerous, uncritical, and lazy. As humanity routinely demonstrates, we have a fantastic ability to differentiate between each other and organize ourselves accordingly.

map of significant Tuareg populations (via wikipedia)

Finally, I mostly agree with the article’s final point that France’s political objectives are much different from the United States’ in Afghanistan in 2001. Most importantly, the article observes that it is unlikely for the French to “stick around” and “attempt to govern on their own terms,” adding that “the bulk of peace-building” will be undertaken by African forces. The stated goal of French intervention is simply “to rid northern Mali of Islamist militants.”

To me France’s objectives are not to solve the root of northern Mali’s violence, but rather to provide a bandage to a sick old man. I’ve written about the need for increased state capacity in previous posts, the French intervention for worse, isn’t about that. But you can’t really blame the French government, the French government isn’t beholden to Malian voters and French taxpayers certainly aren’t going to tolerate expending cash and coin in creating a functioning state apparatus with the ability to project itself into the Saharan wastes. Neither should we be held in awe by France’s actions, the stated goal is to push the rebel-insurgent state back, then leave. Does France really expect African states to be able to create state capacity in Mali when most of them can’t assure state control over their own territories? One thing that is novel is the articulation, before the beginning, of clear objectives for intervention – General (retired) Rupert Smith articulated this in a great book, The Utility of Force.

In closing, I’d argue that every conflict has the opportunity to become somebody’s “Afghanistan.” Geographers and historians are uniquely positioned in academia, they are often forced to look at a variety of scales and times and through multi-disciplinary lenses. Historians focus on time and must be able to follow the threads of economics, politics, culture, and a myriad other disciplines. Geographers focus on place and must do the same, remaining cognizant of the influence of terrain, economics, social groups, and other specialist disciplines. Often, you begin to realize that though there are always stark differences there are also striking similarities spanning places, and times. Geography’s disciplinary emphasis on physical terrain and human activity leaves many well placed to analyze military conflicts, in fact there is an “official” sub-discipline in Geography called, “military geography.” Consider this recent article from the Times of India on violent Islamist activity in Mali, “the Islamists have put up little resistance, many of them fleeing to the Adrar des Ifoghas massif around Kidal, a craggy mountain landscape honeycombed with caves…” Sounds a lot like Afghanistan doesn’t it?


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