January 24, 2013 (Unprinted) Letters to the Editor, New York Times
It is a tragic irony when the human rights movement becomes the cheerleader for a neo-colonial invasion that will cost hundreds of thousands of people their ultimate human right – life. The greatest strength of the human rights movement since its inception in the 1970’s in opposition to abuses by both U.S. and Soviet clients has been its apolitical character, but that is also its greatest weakness.
Karima Bennoune (“The Taliban of Timbuktu”) ignores the political context of what the Pentagon calls “the long war” between the West and Islamist forces for control of the Middle East. She supports the French-U.S. invasion of northern Mali for the humanitarian reason of ending the extreme form of Sharia law being imposed by Jihadist elements of the year-long rebellion by ethnic Tuaregs against the military government of Mali.
Colonial and now neo-colonial powers do not go to war for humanitarian reasons, but they always use them as justification. The British used human rights as an excuse to invade Zululand in 1879, just as the United States uses it as an excuse for staying on in Afghanistan a decade after al-Qaeda was driven out in 2001. In both cases, the imperial Western power’s true motive was the defeat of forces that oppose its regional domination.
The Tuareg have as much right to northern Mali as the Mande who dominate the south, and much more right than the military coup leaders led by Captain Amadou Sanogo. Apparently trained at Quantico by the Marines and Fort Benning by the Army and Lackland by the Air Force, he is an all-service example of the dangers of allying with repressive African armed forces. Professor Bennoune renounces negotiations with Jihadists, just as the United States did with the Taliban in Afghanistan before remembering that the only way out of a popular rebellion is in fact through negotiations.
Armed rebellion against allegedly corrupt and insufficiently devout Islamic governments has been going on in cycles in this region of Africa since at least the early 1800’s, starting with the Fulani Jihad led by Usman the Teacher. We in the West may not like it, but its drama is none of our business. The French soldiers and bombers being aided by U.S. armed forces will bring even more dislocation to an impoverished region. If there is one thing we know from decades of African conflicts it is that deaths will result in large numbers as a tenuous life is disrupted, the water gets dirty, people move in droves, and disease and malnutrition follow.
France, whose support of the military coup in Algeria against an elected Islamist party in 1991 created the Jihadists who have moved from Algeria into Mali, is the last country we should be backing in Africa. It is time to calm the tensions in Mali and encourage the difficult task of reconciliation. The artificial colonial lines, which have spread the Tuareg over three countries, are certainly a challenge, but there are already signs that the Tuareg, like the Fur in Sudan, will settle for guarantees of regional authority rather than independence.
Caleb S. Rossiter
Adjunct Professor, American University, School of International Service; Co-director, American Exceptionalism Media Project; Author of The Turkey and the Eagle: The Struggle for America’s Global Role, Algora Publishing, 2010. www.calebrossiter.com