On The March

On The March

Western fixation with terrorism at the expense of poverty and basic human rights is finally coming home to roost in Africa.

New or reinvigorated democracies supported by the U.S. and France are imploding. Military coups are rearranging the rubble. A decade or so ago this would have represented serious political backwardness. But now it’s quite different. I’m surprised to find myself saying so, but these military coups look a lot better than the regimes they’re toppling.
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Crashing Ceese

Crashing Ceese

maliiiThe big news yesterday about France’s election is prophetically linked to yesterday’s buried news of the collapse of Mali’s election.

Results are not yet known, they will never be, for the 12,000 local and regional Mali officials. Cast ballots were burned, stolen and even blown up by jihadists. In the rebellious north most polling places never even opened.

Yesterday I showed Mali as the quintessential example of climate change and rapid development sabotaging African society. The tragedy goes much further: Soon it will threaten France. Ultimately it will kill Trumpism.

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Drought of Democracy

Drought of Democracy

malielectionGlobal conservatism will fail and Mali will soon provide the evidence.

Today Mali failed running a national election. The country’s inability to foster a democratic government three years after Islamic insurgents took over the country and were then ousted by the French will force the former colonial power either to occupy the country, again, or leave it to Islamic extremists.

This is the inevitable result of climate change and global political conservatism. It is the hidden elephant in the room that will traumatize then conceivably destroy the newly emerging political regimes of the likes of Trump and Le Pen.

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Decamping to the Desert

Decamping to the Desert

desertjihadistsAs radical jihadists slowly and systematically lose control of Iraq and conditions improve in Somalia, it’s clear where they’re fleeing to: the deserts of Africa.

From eastern and northern Mali to western Niger radical jihadism is on the rise. This is the very southern fringe of the great Sahara. The dynamic is accelerated by Nigeria’s successful campaign against jihadists, both militarily and diplomatically.

Why now, and why the desert?

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Ridiculous, Simply

Ridiculous, Simply

carsonstoneageTwo notable attacks this morning, one on the Radisson Blu hotel in Mali and a powerful Nigerian air force offensive against Boko Haram, clarify what terrorism means to many Americans when overlaid Paris.

Up to a dozen masked gunmen driving cars with diplomatic license plates stormed Bamako’s principal expatriate hotel this morning, forced their way in, briefly interrogated a few people who were allowed to leave after reciting sections of the Koran, then rounded up others in what at this moment remains a hostage situation.

Next door, Nigeria’s powerful air force blasted to smithereens “an outdoor gathering” that it claimed was of Boko Haram terrorists in the east of the country.

When these two events play themselves out, over no more time than it took the Paris events to unfold, many more people will have been killed than in Paris, and many more terrorists as well.

And I’ll wage you dollars to donuts it will receive a fraction of the attention, even in this currently charged atmosphere so sensitive to security and terrorism.


First, because the vast majority (say 90%?) of media consumers take little interest in Africa.

Second, media consumers presume that bad things happen more in Africa than where they live. It’s not as unusual.

Third and most sinister, media consumers impugn African failures at moral governance – a sort of “they got what they deserve.”

I doubt you will disagree with the first reason.

The second is almost a tautology; I think we’ll agree.

I may get resistance to my third from holier-than-thou effetes, but the more honest among us will be unable to completely shed this characterization. We may resist our weakness to believe punishment is both just and a course of remedy, but we must admit to it.

So while it’s not a satisfying analysis and hardly one that naturally leads to any rectification of the problem, it stands solid.

Let’s own the situation and our frailty at grappling with it, and then let’s roll up our sleeves and figure out what to do about.

Here’s when I get mad: When instead of confronting this terribly complex situation head-on, we look for shortcuts out of dealing with it.

Today on PBS’ Morning Edition, the intellectual weakling Steve Inskeep asked his even worse reporter assigned to the Mali attack, the ever confused Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, ‘Is this attack linked to anything more global?’ (I can’t remember the exact words. That’s my characterization: Listen to the link.)

Then in a terribly disappointing followup, the good journalist Renee Montagne asked Gerard Araud, France’s ambassador to the United States, if the Mali attacks were linked to anything globally.

To his eternal credit there was an unnatural radio pause before he answered that he thought the situation was more “local.”

Americans want everything linked to the Joker. They want Syrian refugees to be trained by Him. They want the Syrian Opposition (which yet isn’t organized) to fight Him. They want then “to wipe him out.”

The trouble in the world today is, first it’s not more than it’s probably always been, but second, it’s more deadly because of the geometrically increased number of available weapons, and third: it’s way more complicated than before and if linked to anything singular it’s probably climate change.

I’d love to hear how the Republicans plan on wiping out Climate Change.

There is no Joker. Massive increases in technology allow us to know about so much more of the conflicts in the world than we used to. Huge illogical wars like those in Afghanistan and Iraq coupled with the end of the Cold War have thrown unimaginable amounts of weapons out there to be picked up.

So throw all that on your chess board and stop trying to simplify it.

The Rise of The Have-Nots

The Rise of The Have-Nots

MaliErruptsThe deteriorating situation in Mali this week made me realize the crises throughout the world aren’t clashes of ideologies or religions. It’s so simple: the Have Nots are rising.

Mali, you might remember, was the final joint success story of the Obama/Hollande alliance to defeat terrorism in Africa.

Since the Kenyan invasion of Somali on October 16, 2011, I have chronicled in my blogs the slow but methodical Obama/Hollande alliance that pushed the Afghani/Iraqi bad guys to Yemen, to Somalia, through East Africa and to Central Africa, thence finally to Mali.

Where, I wrongly presumed, they were finally clobbered to death by the French foreign legion in January, 2013.

I should have read more carefully my guest blogger, Conor Godfrey, who so passionately described the shock of a Mali suicide bomber which followed in February, 2013.

I mostly ignored that piece by Conor, who is now with the State Department and then as now has one of the finest analytical minds about Africa. That was a mistake. I jumped the gun. Mali was not pacified.

The insurgents that I believed were swept up into a single pile and ultimately defeated by the French Foreign legion that scattered the few remaining fugitives to doom in the Sahara, is now threatening central Mali.

Conor’s piece in 2013 expressed the surprised horror that a suicide bombing had taken place in Mali.

If you asked a random American if there were any suicide bombings here, what percentage do you think would say “None?”

To date this year alone, there have been 285 mass shootings in America, and while I have not had the time to go through them one by one to determine how many ended with the shooter killing himself, I know it was more than several.

That is simply a more modern consumer society’s suicide bomber. It’s easier in America to get a gun than make a bomb.

America is not yet threatening to implode like Mali, even with today’s announced resignation by John Boehner. But the acts are identical, across radically different cultures and historical time zones.

Whether Charlie Hebdo or Boston or Chechnya or a Finish island, people are blowing themselves up in order to kill others.

Conor knows what suicide bombing doesn’t mean:

“Maybe somewhere where life comes a little cheaper, and craziness prevails. This is nonsense…”

He suggests that it might be “blowback from our global war on terror.”

But folks, there has to be a common thread among all these seemingly disparate places and peoples, something that as horrible as it sounds, connects the bomber in Mali with the bomber in Colorado.

In ancient history legions of soldiers knew they were headed into sacrificial battles. But not really until the age of kamikazes did “suicide war” become an individual act.

There has always been desperate dissatisfaction with life by individuals, but the kamikaze, the suicide bomber seems fundamentally screwed up, totally irrational.

Unless you really embrace the concept of hopelessness. Everything is then lost. There is no more morality. Vengeance is the only possible success.

People become hopeless for a lot of different reasons. Many are obvious, like hunger. But many are more complicated, like losing a job. (US 2015 Mass Shooter #246, Vester Flanagan.) But certainly this isn’t just a feature of our modern age. So what is?

Guns and bombs. Never before has such powerful destruction been so easily obtained by an individual.

Hopelessness. There really seems today to be an unusual amount of this worldwide.

Anger. Today we worship and encourage anger like never before.

Hopelessness curls the finger around the trigger. Anger pulls it.

All three are needed for the tragedy. We gotta work on them all, and quick.

The Season Change… Again

The Season Change… Again

bokoharamleaderThis week’s aggressive attacks against Islamic extremists by Egypt, Jordan and now Nigeria is a significant turning point in the wars against ISIS and Boko Haram.

That’s not to say it’s a significant turning point in the “War against Terror.” But we’ll never get to figuring that one out until we start dealing in realities and admitting that the current western mission against ISIS and Boko Haram appears to be working.

It’s now been a day or more since countries in the region of Islamic terror have begun to fight back, and the response from the terrorists indicates they’re worried.

I believe the many seemingly disconnected events that happened this week in Africa and the Levant indicate that Islamic terrorists for the first time believe they are losing.

Al-Jazeera reported this morning that the Taliban and America are exploring “peace talks” in Qatar. The Taliban has had an office in Qatar for several years, and there have been other rumored meetings with America to no avail.

But in light of the much more extreme ISIS and affiliates, the Taliban now seems like Switzerland, very much worth talking to – or through – in times of travail.

Egypt bombed Libya, and Jordan bombed Syria and Iraq, to retaliate against ISIS’ beheadings of their nationals. In Nigeria a new offensive by the army claims to have killed hundreds of terrorists and reclaimed villages that had long been under Boko Haram’s control.

For so long Obama and other sane minds have explained that the war against Islamic extremists in the Levant will only improve when the countries in those regions actually pick up the fight.

Normally Boko Haram and ISIS would never the twain meet. The raw racism that exists between Arabs and Africans is something westerners can’t understand. It exceeds the antipathy of tribalism within Arabs (mostly Sunni versus Shiia) and Africans with their multitude of different ethnic groups.

If things weren’t going badly for radical Islamists as a whole, there would be no collaboration between the African Boko Haram and Arab ISIS. Yet that is exactly what is suggested today.

In a video released by Boko Haram vowing to disrupt the Nigerian election, the Boko Haram leader shows himself for the first time. That together with the professionalism of the production has all the markings of ISIS propaganda.

Recently the two groups released photos of each other’s flags and praised each other’s fighting. That’s hardly collaboration, but even if it’s a stretch to conclude anything more than empathy among villains that’s a significant change.

Almost exactly two years ago a similar new fight was happening in Mali. That represented the last hurrah of al-Qaeda. I predicted as such, and I think that is now what is happening to ISIS and Boko Haram.

Obama/Hollande’s strategy of chasing terrorists and wearing them down works, especially when countries in the area actually begin fighting.

As with al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab, they never disappear altogether and they fracture into new thugs, but they lose their original power and focus.

I’m not suggesting that’s enough, and I’ve often written how short-sighted this strategy is:

ISIS emerged from the fracturing of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Boko Haram emerged from the defeat of certain Tuaregs and other Islamic groups. So theoretically we’ll spend eternity squashing one group that emerges in the pyre of the previous.

Yet call a spade a spade, folks. The single greatest threat today to the specific if questionable mission to defeat ISIS and Boko Haram is to deny they are being defeated, that the mission is succeeding.

So the single greatest threat is ourselves, those of us who thrive on the need to be threatened: The McCains and Grahams, the Righties and Fox News who can’t see beyond their nose and believe they’re threatened from all sides until the room is nuked.

It’s exactly what the terrorists want. It is, in fact, their only hope: turning America into the quintessential suicide bomber.

We Need Shrinks not Generals

We Need Shrinks not Generals

CongoMarchUnder the noise of Snowden, dysfunction of Congress, frantic media and lackluster personality of Obama, the War Against Terrorism is being massively ratcheted up in Africa.

The French Foreign Legion was dispatched last week to the remote deserts of Mali, to support a freely elected government that is being newly challenged by rebel groups in its most outlying cities.

Crack South African troops added to increased United Nations peacekeeping forces and ruthless Congolese government troops newly armed by the west, have been crushing the last of the known rebel groups in the eastern Congo, an area of conflict for nearly a half century.

How’s it going?

Hard. The unspoken but terribly obvious Hollande/Obama alliance to make Africa the last great military battleground against organized terrorism began five years ago in Somalia. American advisers were everywhere in northern Kenya and the port of Mombasa, and French warships were just off the coast of Somalia.

Drones were added and the war begun. Kenya was enlisted as the visible front army and Somalia was “liberated.” Its al-Qaeda affiliates were scattered and what was left of anything organized raced through Uganda into the center of the continent.

The world watched 90 U.S. soldiers chase them across the Uganda.

But Hollande and Obama miscalculated the arsenal of weapons that liberated Libya would make available, and scattered groups in Mali benefited enormously. France’s end-game mission to America’s chasing of the rebels into the center of the continent was to crush them in the Central African Republic (CAR).

But instead, it had to focus on Mali, far northwest of the CAR. So today the CAR is essentially anarchistic. A report published this morning by Amnesty International describes the CAR in the most horrific, barbaric terms. Every civilized person seems to have abandoned the country, making it ripe for organized terrorist control.

Hardly two years ago the focus of visible battles between the west and its proxies, and al-Qaeda and its proxies was in Somalia. Only a few months ago it reemerged in Mali where it persists. And the riffraff, disparate, heavily armed leftovers of a dozen so-called al-Qaeda affiliates or older rebel groups (like the LRA) are now duking it out like barbarians in the CAR.

You cannot eliminate terrorism, Mr. & Monsieur President.

You cannot eliminate unless you had global gun control the likes of which evades my most fanciful dreams. Where there are weapons and the materials for making them, there will be terrorism.

The question is, Are We Safer Now?

Before I give you my opinion, don’t you think it’s important to also ask, Is Africa Safer Now? What right does the west presume in order to use Africa as the backforty into which the wolves are chased and kept at bay?

If the world ever runs out of weapons, we’ll be forced to deal with conflicting ideologies, as well as crazy terrorists, in ways we should develop, now.

Modern force is so omnipresent, as easily mastered by an internet keyboard, that it can’t possibly end conflict, today. It will only interrupt or delay it.

Consider this, first. The conflict in the DRC’s Kivu Province is a half century old. It’s based largely on the same ethnic divisions that caused the Rwandan genocide. Those divisions are festering. The calm in Rwanda is the calm of a benevolent strongman. Once his biceps snap, all hell is going to break loose.

Consider this, second. Organized terrorism is fanatical. Unlike ethnic conflict, terrorism may have no other explanation except the obsession to rule and control.

Both turn men into beasts eager to die – to kill themselves – for reasons they don’t wholly understand. Hypnotic or simply psychotic.

You can’t get them all. We don’t need any more generals. We need shrinks.

The Demons of Democracy

The Demons of Democracy

democracyfailesmorsiwinsTwo African elections this week clearly show how democracy fails in societies with powerful chief executives.

Like the U.S. But more about that after discussing Africa.

This week’s elections in Zimbabwe and Mali have failed both their societies, for different reasons, and the result is arguably worse than had there not been elections at all.

In Zimbabwe the rigged election process reaffirmed the country’s despot, Robert Mugabe, and ensures the country will continue to slide into poverty and greater dependency upon its neighbors desperate that it doesn’t totally fail.

It’s interesting that Mugabe and thugs mastered the democratic process so well that despite this week’s travesty of popular expression, observers from as divergent organizations as the African Union and reporters for Reuters gave the process a pass.

It absolutely wasn’t fair. Imagine an election – officially stated – with 99.97% of the rural population voting, and only 68.2% of the urban population voting.

Get it?

What Robert Mugabe has become is an evil despot. This is pretty easily defined as an individual who concentrates power around himself and his thugs, and distributes whatever wealth can be extracted from the country into this small core of individuals.

At the expense of everyone else in the population, even those who supposedly voted for him.

He absolutely does have solid support from Zimbabwe’s poor and rural populations, who are thrown pieces of bread (the land of white farms) just like Marie Antoinette did to stave the French revolution.

And essentially uneducated and untrained, a piece of land is a gold mine, but what it means for the tens of thousands of rural Zimbabweans who have benefitted from this policy, is that they will never have tractors, will never have schools, will never have hospitals or roads or a better life beyond their tiny plot of land.

Yet their ecstacy at this gift from Daddy is profound. And their xenophobia and racism is ripe for plucking. And even so, even with 99.97% of them “voting,” they wouldn’t have been the majority if the more educated urban populations were given their voice.

And, of course, 99.97% of them didn’t vote. Many of them can’t read and there weren’t enough polling stations in the country to handle that number of actual voters. The irregularities in this “election” were profound.

Yet it was “democratic.” Zimbabwe’s urban population rolls were restricted by techniques strikingly similar to dozens of new American voter registration laws. If it’s democracy in Texas, it’s democracy in Zimbabwe.

In Mali – often championed as a model for democracy by westerners – another near perfect election process has resulted in an effective tie. This is something democracy can’t handle. It screwed it up in Bush v. Gore, and it screwed it up in Kenya’s recent election, and now Mali’s future becomes terribly problematic.

Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK), a former prime minister in better times, seems to have received 50.+% of the vote, which would effectively make him the chief executive without a second run-off election.

This, by the way, is the identical situation that occurred in Kenya in March, where the victors were ultimately declared the winners with 50.07% of the vote.

In Mali, the election process was truly fair in my opinion. If there was any fault to the process, it was that the serious opposition from the desert peoples and those involved in the recent insurgency was not voiced. In part, because the insurgency continues and the insurgents didn’t want to participate.

But of the society held together by the French Foreign Legion, a sort of muscular gerrymandering, the elections were remarkably free and transparent.

But now what? Within the margin of error of any scientific study, no one really won, but democracy mandates that someone win. If this were in Europe or Israel, it wouldn’t matter so much, because the chief executive for whom the election was held is not so powerful.

But in executive democracies, where the chief executive like President Obama holds so much power, one of the sides wins and one of the sides loses. Definitively.

And down the road that leads to polarization, friction and radicalization of power blocks that might otherwise be able to compromise.

Had America had a parliamentary democracy rather than an executive presidency, I believe that we would never have gone to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The challenge of modern democracy is to create workable amalgams of power in societies with large and nearly equally opposing views. That’s not possible in societies with a powerful chief executive.

This is the case as well in Kenya, where ethnicity and corruption is now on the rise after decades of decline, and where Mali is likely now doomed to become a war zone for generations.

Neither Kenya or Mali will be able to traumatize the world as much as America did after Bush v. Gore. But all three examples show how ineffective, perhaps counterproductive, democracy is when the society has a powerful chief executive.

The analysis seems much simpler with Mugabe. When evil masters the process, in this case democracy, the ends justify the means and essentially emasculates the idealists who proclaim the process. Yet on closer reflection it’s clear had Zimbabwe not had a powerful chief executive style government, Mugabe may not have lasted.

The lesson seems starkly obvious to me. Democracy is a bad idea for societies with a powerful chief executive. Parliamentary democracies may be good; presidential democracies are not.

Mali: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Mali: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

by Conor Godfrey

For how long? Photo by New York Times
This is my last blog before turning the reins back over to Jim, so I thought I would sign out with the state of play in Mali, a country near and dear to my heart.

4,000 French troops, along with several hundred Chadians, and smaller contingents from Benin, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, and Senegal, have retaken the three main Northern cities of Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal, and pushed the main body of insurgents northward into the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains on the border with Algeria.

Estimates put total insurgent numbers, spread among three or four different groups, around 4,000 – 6,000, and French forces report the rebels are well armed and better trained than expected.

The Good:
– The hardcore Islamist leadership is dropping like horses in the Tse-Tse belt. A mess of confirmed and unconfirmed reports claim that French and/or Chadian forces killed two leading figures in the assorted extremist groups currently fighting in Northern Mali.
– These leaders— Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Abdelhamid Abou Zeid—are committed international Jihadis from outside Mali, with long histories of murder and kidnapping. (Disclaimer: Belmoktar’s death remains unconfirmed)

As much as some readers may hate force, or the idea of the French using it in West Africa, I would argue that brute force helps separate the committed jihadis from opportunistic locals.

Joining a rebel movement seems like a much better play when they run your hometown, claim to fight your traditional enemies, or pay the best of any employer in town.

That line of work looks far less attractive when your foreign (likely Algerian or Mauritanian) boss is running for his life through the dessert.

The Bad:
– So far, diverse Northern communities are broadly receptive of the French intervention.

However, this is horrendously complicated and could turn at any moment. A few things you should keep in mind regarding about popular opinion in Mali:

Anti-northern attitudes are hardening in Southern Mali—especially negative feelings toward Tuaregs.

This xenophobia will complicate the post-conflict scenario, as Southern elites will come under serious pressure to punish the North. In the North, communal divisions make coalescing behind moderate representation nigh impossible.

See this great post by Bamako Bruce exploring the historical roots of inter-communal antipathy….

Essentially, the Tuaregs have been slavers for most of the territory’s history, so the former slaves find it rather difficult to see Tuaregs as victims.

The Ugly:
– There is no centrifugal force currently capable of creating a unified, functional Mali. Watch this two-minute Stratfor video on Mali’s geographic challenge.

Nothing has changed.

A military occupation by a superior force can enforce a temporary peace, but not make a state. The French are facing intense domestic pressure to make good on Hollande’s claim that this would be a short term operation, and every French soldier that dies (three so far) makes Mali look more like Iraq to the folks back home.

– Sure. But really just for optimism’s sake.

Mali needs representative, viable, and politically palatable representation in the North that can lead a constituent assembly, or at least claim to speak for Northern communities in negotiations with the South.

An armed peace held together by regional forces and or the (proposed) UN Peacekeeping mission might give Northern elites time to bargain over such a coalition.

However, I don’t think any of the current groups would be acceptable to the entire Northern population – the MNLA are too Tuareg centric, and the others are mostly too extreme.

The international community – especially the French – should immediately begin using whatever leverage they have to kick-start the bargaining process before the extremists come get back from the mountains.

First Time…

First Time…

By Conor Godfrey.
Two days ago the first Malian in history blew himself up in an attempt to kill others.

Americans have become so inured to suicide bombings that this fact may seem tragic but inconsequential.

Most Malians, however, have yet to recover.

This simply does, or did, not happen in the land of Sundiata Keita.

Nowhere in Songhai chants, or Fulani poems, or even marshal Bambara stories do people talk about strapping bombs to their waist and taking innocent lives.

In centuries of warfare between Arab and Bantu, nomad and farmer, Muslim and pagan, such a thing as never happened.

Let us try for one moment to return to our pre-9/11 innocence and feel some shock, and some sympathy for a corner of the world previously uncontaminated by this particular evil.

I remember when the first Boko Haram suicide bomber blew himself up in Nigeria.

My Nigerian friends and colleagues were stunned. It seemed as though they took the attack as an indictment of the culture they thought they knew and understood.

Even mass killings of Muslims and Christians on the Nigerian central plateau did not generate one-tenth the moral outrage of that single suicide bombing.

Inter-communal conflict was something they understood intuitively. This business with bombs was not.

Americans have become unconscious experts at shielding ourselves from the emotive power of a suicide bombing. We have had too.

Erecting effective psychological defenses against suicide bombing requires neutering all the emotional content of a suicide attack.

In silent partnership, the news consumer and the news provider reduce an attack to its purported essentials – the death toll, the mechanics of delivering the bomb, and which group of crazies was claiming responsibility.

In Mali’s virgin case—two deaths, by bicycle, and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO).

Why do we wallow in the raw emotionality of a natural disaster, or school shooting, or even an individual suicide, but culturally divorce ourselves from the most heinous and powerful act of violence and protest available to today’s discontents?

I think it remains much easier to homogenize people we don’t understand in far away places by reducing their actions to banalities like numbers of wounded and how the attack took place.

Stop and think about what we’re saying; someone was just willing to die in order to kill!

If we let ourselves feel the tragedy of a homegrown suicide bombing in Mali, we would probably have to ask why the attacker felt strongly enough to blow himself to pieces.

Through this we would learn, to our concernment, that he was not ‘crazy’ in the sense of being insane, and all this introspection might lead us to think more clearly about the blowback from our global war on terror.

These thoughts will of course feel vaguely (and wrongly) treasonous.

It is far easier just to think of Mali or Africa as somewhere used to getting a raw deal.

Maybe somewhere where life comes a little cheaper, and craziness prevails. This is nonsense, but hard to shake if you were raised on the same images and news coverage I was.

Fight the urge to disassociate and dismiss.

The new normal is NOT normal in Mali, and an entire society will need to rebuild its sense of self (or senses of selves) in a world where the tears in the cultural fabric are large enough to permit boys with bombs bent on self-annihilation.

Should the Past Burn Away?

Should the Past Burn Away?

The Mali war has reignited an old debate: should precious artifacts always be returned to the motherland, or should they be kept in safety by the greater, more stable powers of the world?

Yesterday France returned to Nigeria in an elaborate ceremonial handover several confiscations of ancient Nok Arts, prized terra cotta sculptures of Nigerian empires of the 6th century. Over the last several years Yale University has begun a near complete repatriation of the Hiram Bigham artifacts the explorer took from Machu-Picchu in the early 20th century.

And while Paris remains replete with Egyptian artifacts like the obelisk acquired especially during Napoleon’s reign, France is slowly repatriating these, too.

And then comes Mali.

Without ancient artifacts from foreign lands such august institutions as the British Museum would be near meaningless. Chicago’s Field Museum would be emasculated. Taipei’s National Palace Museum would be crushed. And the Louvre – my goodness, Le Louvre, would be nothing more than a home for the Mona Lisa.

But is it right that such national treasures be housed away from the Motherland?

The treasures of Timbuktu rank right up there with the pyramids and Inca kings. In fact, many believe they are the most precious artifacts the world has.

This is because among its mosques and building relics are housed many of the world’s oldest written manuscripts. The oldest registered manuscript – at least before the current war – was dated from 1204. It included texts not just on world religion but astronomy, women’s rights, alchemy and medicine, mathematics and linguistics.

Timbuktu was a natural place for such ancient manuscripts. For several millennia before the modern age it was the crossroads of two major trade routes: the Saharan camel route with the Niger River.

But it was not until the 16th century when the area was arguably at its prime that a famous and wealthy scholar, Mohammed abu Bakr al-Wangari, established a “library” of ancient scrolls and documents. He spent the last 30 years of his life collecting these treasures, and when he died in 1594 they were inherited by his seven sons.

Collection and restoration continued for the centuries thereafter, but without a strong centralized government it was haphazard and often random. Timbuktu’s most prominent families became identified with their libraries of ancient texts.

By the turn of the 20th Century it was estimated that more than a quarter million books, notes, drawings and other relics of the past were being lovingly preserved by literally thousands of Timbuktu’s 100,000 residents.

UNESCO became deeply involved years ago, and in 2005 a huge portion of its cultural restoration budget was dedicated to Timbuktu alone.

But because the manuscripts – the most precious treasures of all – were still legally in the hands of individual families, UNESCO cleverly over the years poured its funds into the remains of ancient mosques and mausoleums. Slowly over time these attracted manuscripts.

Still the vast majority of texts were aggressively retained and often hidden by individual families. In 2005 South Africa convinced many of them to stop burying ancient parchment in the sand whenever trouble arose, and began a library.

That extraordinary effort went up in flames as the Islamists left Timbuktu last week.

One of the most visible of the many libraries was Timbuktu’s Ahmed Baba Institute for Higher Studies and Islamic Research. When the Islamists first took over Timbuktu, the adroit director managed to convince one of the leaders of the importance of the texts to Islamic law.

Then, over the next months, he smuggled 28,000 of the most precious manuscripts out of the building. When the Islamists left, they burned what was left.

How much has been lost? Inventory is still going on, but the point is that most of these remarkable documents are still in private hands, libraries and collections of various Timbuktu families.

Is it time that such precious relics of humankind be removed to safer places? Or at the very least removed to Bamako and protected there?

Frighteningly Wonderful in Mali

Frighteningly Wonderful in Mali

France’s liberation of Timbuktu and defeat of Malian Islamic revolutionaries is right on schedule and demonstrates perfectly the American/French axis routing world terrorism.

Sunday’s Meet the Press roundtable was in contrast the perfect example of how fooled and even bamboozled old guard American media personalities still are. Andrea Mitchell excepted, the remaining two old men got almost everything wrong:

Ted Koppel who presided over the creation of the War of Terror in the media predicted “we’re entering one of the most dangerous eras this country has ever experienced.”


“I think it’s even bigger and more troubling than that,” pounced Bob Woodward, the man who broke Watergate and was apparently broken by it in return.

I’m making no bones about saying that France’s action will be short-lived, especially by the standards of American foreign involvements, and that it will be generally successful. As I said in earlier blogs, I think this is the end-game for the current era of terrorism. That doesn’t mean the end to terrorism, of course, just the end of the al-Qaeda chapter.

The end-game wasn’t supposed to be quite so publicly bloody, and this is largely because of American missteps in Mali. AFRICOM was the new American African command that set in pace a number of militaristic actions I’m ambivalent about, but which did chase al-Qaeda from Yemen to Somalia to central Africa and finally to North Africa where it was supposed to desiccate in the sand.

This three-year chase fragmented what had been a more structured and organized group of very bad guys. Separately, the Obama drone assassinations took out dozens of terrorist leaders, including of course the Top Gun. Like Sherman plowing through Georgia, death and destruction has been left in the wake, but…

…al-Qaeda is gone, Somalia has been pacified and terrorism has been chased on a long arc from Afghanistan down into east Africa and back up to North Africa … where now the French are pummeling it to death.

It got messy in Mali because Americans don’t speak French right. We trained the Malian army and held it up to public scrutiny as a model for modern African armies (allied, of course, to the west).

But those pesky French-speaking Africans got naughty and staged a coup against what we had also championed as one of Africa’s most stable democracies, and together with a few other events like generations of weapons released from Libya, the current war was precipitated.

Tuaregs have been fighting for independence since the dawn of the camel, and al-Qaeda remnants fleeing America’s silent sweep, pushed north into the southern flowing Libyan arms made uncomfortable but convenient bed fellows. For a while.

It couldn’t last. It didn’t. But it was strong enough long enough to give the French cause to attack. The French don’t dither like Americans. They never have, and their unique forms of morality are the same which continue to celebrate Napoleon’s tomb in the Champs de Mars.

So now what?

North Africa is a mess, but it isn’t the global threat that Afghanistan was. The trouble in Egypt is internal and will last for some time, but it will not spread. French foreign legion will be in Mali for some time, now, but fighting will diminish not spread into Niger or Nigeria as old men American commentators claim.

And the terrorism threat will diminish. The world will be more peaceful.

So why am I so unsettled and near sarcastic?

Because this was all planned. I see everything having happened to a a near perfect specific plan, a covert military mission organized by the Obama administration, cleaned up by the French. The French weren’t supposed to come out of the rafters, but they had to translate for the Americans. That was the only unplanned move. That this all worked and made the world peaceful is good.

That it is covert and so strikingly successful is terrifying.

Death Knell for al-Qaeda

Death Knell for al-Qaeda

The death knell of the al-Qaeda of Osama bid Laden is gonging in Mali. France is bombing al-Qaeda into oblivion. This is likely the last time you’ll ever hear of the al-Qaeda that blew up the Twin Towers.

The battle today is fierce. There is absolutely no question that this is Afghanistan 2003 in Mali. And I’m convinced that France will win.

Revolutionary guerrillas are never bombed out of existence, whether they’re Mao’s Red Brigade or al-Qaeda in the Maghreb. Guerrillas who survive extermination surface elsewhere, in other revolutions and later wars as many of the old al-Qaeda are Taliban today in Afghanistan.

But al-Qaeda as an organized terrorist force will be no longer and I don’t think anything near as powerful will reemerge in this political epoch. The Taliban, for instance, in either Afghanistan or Pakistan has little power outside its own turf, and that’s what differentiates them from al-Qaeda.

In addition to nine-eleven, al-Qaeda organized a number of global attacks, including the horrible subway massacre of London, the U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa, a Philippine Airlines bombing plot, the Bali massacre, the World Trade Center bombing, tourist hotel bombings on the Kenyan coast, the attempted Manchester airport raid, the shoe bomber, the UPS package bomber, and the attack on the U.S.S. Cole, and this lengthy list doesn’t even include the successful attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The reach of al-Qaeda has never been seen before al-Qaeda. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been as effective revolutionary movements, just that none except al-Qaeda were truly global. That’s the difference, and I think that global reach of a single terrorist organization will end when the Mali war ends.

What happened in Mali was long expected. The country sits on the bottom of the Sahara Desert, and a huge portion of its north is little more than sand. But for centuries this sand has been ruled by the Tuaregs, a tribe of powerful horseman and cattle traders who controlled the lucrative desert routes that connected North Africa and Europe with the countries on the Atlantic Ocean.

The Tuaregs had never truly succumbed to modern government oversight. And their revolutionary nature, matured in the 21st century with leaders who were schooled in the west and armed by enormous weaponry left from the overthrow of Ghadafi, took over northern Mali more than 9 months ago.

The area is the size of France, and Tuaregs demanded an independent country. It would be nonsense, by the way. As camel thieves and rogue marauders to desert oases, the Tuaregs will never develop on their own. They need development just like peoples everywhere, and nobody in the world – including China or Russia – was going to recognize a country composed of desert tents.

This was the feeling of the very moderate Mali government, a government that was heralded by democratic giants the world over. Even in this blog, written in March by Conor Godrey, there was a sense that the Tuareg “rebellion” would be negotiated down to helping them better than they had been by the Mali government.

But what happened was that al-Qaeda was looking for a new home. I’ve written before about the putsch against al-Qaeda organized by the U.S. and the west.

We pushed them from Afghanistan to Yemen to Somali to the jungles of central Africa, and ultimately into Mali.

We pushed them with local militaries, like the Kenyans, and unbelievably advanced technologies like drones.

Guerilla terrorists flee before making a last stand. Their ideology demands little honor of the sort traditional battles value. When defeated, they run to make a stand another day, and they run to places where they have an opportunity of control. For example, the desert.

So the Tuaregs were usurped by al-Qaeda. There was a period in March and April when several groups negotiated among each other and agreed on an uncomfortable assembly of Islamic law and order. But it didn’t last, really. The land of the Tuaregs, which literally for centuries was ruled by their desert mavericks, was now in the hands of al-Qaeda.

And the Mali government response was weak. So weak that even as the world was calling for serious military intervention, the Mali government balked. Finally its own soldiers mutinied, the weak government collapsed and there was no formal opponent to the new Islamic soldiers ruling its north.

The Security Council, unanimous across its many different state ideologies, authorized military action. The most progressive nearly communist governments and institutions also recognized the need for military action.

This is because Mali is the heart of West Africa. If al-Qaeda establishes a toehold here, Nigeria, Ivory Coast and even Morocco may be threatened.

But France felt waiting until the UN got its act together would be too long. Friday, they started bombing.

Britain has provided air craft for transport. The U.S. has provided transport, intelligence, and undoubtedly, drones.

The Afghan war was bungled by an inept American administration. France is not inept. Since Afghanistan and with lessons learned from it, the western world has been stealthy until now. It is no longer.

The only explanation is that this will be the last and decisive battle against al-Qaeda.