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?

Integrating Geographic Tech in Conflict: India’s GPS solution?

The Times of India recently ran an article on a proposal to fit the weapons of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel with GPS units. The proposal comes on the heels of a bloody ambush of the CRPF conducted by Maoist (colloquially called naxalite) guerrillas in the country’s interior. The CRPF hopes that by including GPS units on their weapons, they will at least get some tactical information on the whereabouts of guerrillas when they loot the weapons. However, I doubt that this will be much of a solution for the CRPF and India.

The article, and the CRPF, both state that the current battery life of GPS units available to fit are woefully inadequate – less than a day’s charge. As the CRPF notes, the insurgents tend to move on foot and so a few day’s worth of data is necessary in order to build a somewhat reliable pattern of direction and speed.

In addition to this technical aspect, there are two geographic hurdles to this potential solution. The first is physical, looking at Google Maps, Latehar (Jharkhand state) is close to the Gotang Forest, which is marked as Maoist. Assuming that my GPS watch is a normal representative of GPS unit, it has significant difficulty (and this is documented) in acquiring reliable signals amongst tall buildings and trees. Since its likely that the Maoist are actually in the Gotang Forest, the accuracy of the GPS units will likely suffer though I couldn’t say by how much. Looking at my runs in the city though, even running down a street in a straight line can cause my plot to fall on top of buildings or on the other side of the street (so maybe a 50 foot circle of error).

The other geographic hurdle is human. This whole idea is the typical (Western) state response to difficulty – get technology! As the article (and an astute commenter) point out, the CRPF has a poor intelligence network in the Maoist areas. This is partly due to coordination deficiency with other Indian agencies (not geographic) and partly due to the local “tribals” supporting the Maoists, rather than the state. Interestingly, the article points to the “lack of state penetration in tribal areas” as the cause. I believe this statement subtly hints at the real problem. Rather than laying the onus for Maoist support on the tribal communities, it lays it on the state. The Maoists are, according to this statement, fulfilling a governance vacuum – they are an insurgent state. In other words, the Maoists are the state. The Indian government is the encroaching, foreign intruder.

And therein lies the real solution to the ease of ambushing the CRPF and the larger conflict with the Maoists. Win over the local communities, through good governance and opportunity growth, and demonstrate why your state is better than the current one.

The World’s Malthusian Problem

Politics and academia shouldn’t mix. But they do, frequently. Politicians quote and carry “science” much like the kings of old carried “religion”. Frequently citing statistics, politicians justify platforms, programs, and policies without revealing the biases and assumptions within. But you already knew that. Academics, too, play political cards and if you followed this blog you know that I’m no friend of the decidedly lefty (not the handedness for I am also a lefty!) bent of academia, particularly in Geography. I don’t mind social activism and social justice these are noble ends, but proselytizing in a dissertation, thesis, or paper is lazy. Sure, you could blame everything on colonialism – what? that’s old hat you say? what about the state? no? the petite bourgeoisie then! – but that’s intellectually dishonest. There are multiple causes to any single event, especially in the social sciences which are concerned with explaining the vagaries of humanity. Think of yourself, why do you take the route you do to get to work or school? There’s a myriad of geographic factors.

Enter the Reverend (I had no idea!) Thomas Robert Malthus (d. 1834) political economist and geographer (specifically of the sub-discipline, demography). Writing as he did in the 19th century, Malthus noted something potentially troubling – population grew exponentially. Geographers widely acknowledge that 2.1 children per woman is a stable population (that is a population that neither grows quickly nor falls). Why? One child replaces the woman and another child replaces the man. The “.1” child is to replace any other member in the population that doesn’t have a child of their own, for biological or whatever reason. Imagine a world of just one couple, and they have “2.1” children (say, year 1). The following year (year 2) the world now has 4.1 people. In year three, the two couples each have 2.1 children, now there are 8.4 people in the world. In year four, 4 couples each have 2.1 children, now there are 17.2 people. Finally in year 5, our clan has grown by 2.1 children again for the 8 couples, leaving 35 people. So a “stable” population is still growing, more or less, just not very quickly. Imagine if you bump up the number of children to 3 or 4, 5 or 6?

Living before the Green Revolution (about the 1950s), Malthus saw this exponential population growth and compared it to agricultural output, which was growing linearly at the time. If you had a crop output in year 1 of say 1 ton, in year 2 you might be able to get 2 tons with the extra labor, and 3 tons in year 3. By year 5, when there are 35 mouths to feed you would only have 5 tons of grain! To Malthus, the high population growth in the 19th century (I’m guessing people in Britain at the time we’re having 6+ kids) was simply unsustainable the world would run out of food, mass starvation and famine would ensue. To Malthus, mass starvation and famine would lower the population and thereby increase relative food supply. Of course, that’s a relatively inhumane way to solve the problem (that is, let people starve) so he advocated for more proactive solutions, including moral restraint – remaining celibate until marriage and only marrying when one was able to support a family. Clearly, Malthus was wrong in that agricultural production can, and will, grow exponentially to keep up with demand (see chart from Wikipedia). If there is an ceiling on Terra’s carrying capacity (Geographer short-hand for the total population that available agricultural land can support), we haven’t quite reached it and we’re approaching 7 billion people.

Today, neo-Malthusians apply Malthus’ general argument, that too many people are a bad outcome for almost everything. And the latest example (finally got to the current story!) is in Foreign Policy magazine. The article states that Mali’s high population growth is the “real reason” that the country is “awash with terrorists.” The article calls the 3% growth rate “unsustainable” and specifically references Mali’s carrying capacity, but leaves it up to us to figure out if that’s true or not. The article could have been written by Malthus, “in an undeveloped and largely barren land, too many people are competing for too few local resources and opportunities”. Scary, if not new, thinking. This problem of the “youth bulge” has been discussed in security circles for a while now, and its still lazy thinking.

But first, let’s talk about terrorism and the potential links with high population growth. The article makes the usual point that young men, competing for too few resources, with too few opportunities, are “deeply susceptible to the temptation of armed criminality and insurgency.” The key here is “deeply susceptible”, essentially what this article is saying is that high population growth, leads to large numbers of young men (duh), and when there’s not enough opportunities to satisfy these young men (possibility), they could turn into armed criminals and insurgents. I suppose that’s true, but the United States has its own armed criminals and we’re well under the “2.5 per cent rule”. Rather than blame high population growth, I’d point the finger at sluggish opportunity (economic, social) growth. If this growth kept pace with population (3% or whatever), most “young men” would be able to satisfy their desire for improvement.

Furthermore, I’m not sure where the Saudi Arabia 2.3% number came from, the U.S. Census Bureau reported a growth rate of 1.8% in 2005.

And then there’s the false-negatives. Serbia, perpetrator of a genocide in the few decades had a 2005 growth rate of negative 0.5%. In other words, the population is decreasing. Similarly the West Bank had an estimated growth rate of 2.4% in 2005. In Tunisia, a country that toppled its own government during the so-called Arab Spring, the 2005 growth rate was 1.0%. Algeria, Mali’s northern neighbor, had a growth rate of 1.3% in 2005. These countries have plenty of instability and violence and are growing relatively slowly (if at all). And of course, the article acknowledges the high growth rate countries without massive problems, like the United Arab Emirates (4.4% 2005 growth rate). This data comes from the international programs section at the U.S. Census Bureau.

Blaming insurgency on high population growth is lazy. Its easier to tell Mali, in this case, that you should lower your population growth. Not only is this answer lazy, its an easy political answer. The problem lies with you and your country. Of course, unfair trading terms and a legacy of colonialism don’t factor into the mix. But these aren’t the only problems, I doubt unfair trading terms and a legacy of colonialism have a demonstrable, direct impact on a decision for someone to join an insurgency and, possibly, get killed.

I think it would be much wiser and more even-handed to actually examine the multitude of reasons for why men, and women, join insurgencies and address those causes, whether they are economic, political, or social.