Mali Islamist Militants

Mali: Intervention, Invasion, and Invention

Broadly, it may be that intervention is a limited and fundamentally flawed approach, but to say that some invented Western Empire marches on Africa to secure its dominance is to simplify a complex internal crisis, and to ignore the appeals of the Malian government for help.


Mali Islamist Militants


Ten years since the West’s intervention in Iraq and in the midst of a new French and British presence in Mali, it is right to emphasise that failing to appreciate the complexities of any international conflict is always costly. Deciding whether or not to commit to military intervention requires extensive deliberation and patience. Whatever one decides, there must be no doubt as to the seriousness of the implications, no question as to the responsibilities assumed as a consequence. Interventionists are often urged to keep these warnings in mind before they choose to support a foreign military conflict, but it should be remembered that this counsel must also apply to those opposed to intervention.

Not long after the French intervention in Mali, a number of voices on the left denounced what they saw as a provocative invitation to Islamist violence and a failure to learn from the West’s intervention in Iraq ten years ago. However, it is arguably these voices that appear to be repeating past mistakes. Opposition to the Iraq War, while vociferous, never received the scrutiny and interrogation it truly deserved, and since it so frequently characterised itself solely in terms of what it was against, it is crucial to keep in mind what the anti-war movement was for.

Broadly speaking, we can infer that many of those opposed to the Iraq war would have preferred the continuation of Saddam Hussein’s rule over Western intervention. There was little and remains little to suggest that his regime could have been toppled from within the country, and in any case, this was not a hope articulated by some within the anti-war movement at the time. In particular, we should note that George Galloway, one of the most prominent members of the Stop the War Coalition, openly praised the dictator and the operations of insurgent forces in Iraq. The Stop the War Coalition’s erroneous unease around efforts to thwart fascism in Iraq and elsewhere have been disappointing, but by failing to offer a credible approach to the tangible dangers of the Islamist influence in Mali, some are perpetuating the notion that to be anti-war is to abdicate responsibility for the consequences of non-intervention. The impact of intervention is important and deserves continuous scrutiny, because this impact is severe and often bloody, but the potentially destructive impact of inaction in the face of the dangers present in Mali are not receiving the attention they deserve.

It would be in error to say that alternatives to intervention do not exist. Here at The Risky Shift, Alex Clackson has identified a number of suggestions, including the provision of development aid and increased support for domestic governments. However, a deeper misunderstanding often characterises opposition to intervention. There is a tendency among many, particularly on the left to locate intervention by the West in general and, in the case of Mali, France and Britain in particular, in a neo-imperialistic/colonialist narrative. Journalist John Pilger has gone so far as to say that ‘A full-scale invasion of Africa is under way,’ which he compares to the Scramble for Africa of the nineteenth century. This is a limited and ultimately ahistorical view of the kind of Western intervention we have seen in the region.

The sovereignty of Mali is not under threat from ‘the West’ but from several Islamist groups including Ansar Dine and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), both of which demand the imposition of Islamic law throughout the country. It is also worth noting that it was Mali’s interim president Dioncounda Traore who requested military aid from France in January of this year to counter these groups. Broadly, it may be that intervention is a limited and fundamentally flawed approach, but to say that some invented Western Empire marches on Africa to secure its dominance is to simplify a complex internal crisis, and to ignore the appeals of the Malian government for help.


Photo Credit: Magharebia

4 thoughts on “Mali: Intervention, Invasion, and Invention”

  1. Excellent article Patrick, very impressed. However to blanketly admit that intervention may be “fundamentally” flawed may be giving the left a little too much credit. There are times where intervention is not only the only approach, but also the best one.

  2. While you do make a number of very valid points, as someone on the left and as an active member of the Stop the War Coalition movement, I naturally disagree with the main premise of your article.
    When explaining interventions, I like to use the analogy of a bucket filled with water, but with many holes. Interventions are like trying to plug one hole, but ultimately what that leads to is an even stronger stream of water coming out from another hole in the bucket (the stream of water being terrorist groups). Ultimately it is impossible to plug all holes in the bucket and therefore interventions would continue forever- perpetual war.
    You obviously read my article on Mali intervention where I wrote briefly about other alternatives to interventions- international aid, working closely with governments, capacity building, training of police and other security personnel. These are just some of the paths that can be taken to help regional governments deal with terror groups themselves, unfortunately Europe prefers to go down the violent route of interventions, which ultimately create even more holes in the bucket.

  3. Hello,

    Thank you very much for your comments, I really appreciate the feedback.

    Peter, I completely agree. It was not my attention to concede that intervention is ‘fundamentally flawed’ as I do not believe this is the case. A better way to put it would have been to say that even if it was the case that intervention was fundamentally flawed, it would not in my view be due to the imperialist nature of the west.

    Alexander, thank you for your comment. I think that the alternatives you mention in your article are crucial and should never be overlooked in favour of blind intervention. To develop your metaphor, however, I would suggest that the biggest, most stubborn holes in the bucket are created by the objectives inherent in Islamofascist ideology. As such, to say that the west is to blame for these particular holes is in my view a mistake. I do appreciate, however, that intervention carries its own problems and challenges, as I have taken care to mention in my article. The broader problem is that many people too easily assumed that anti-interventionists have no need to justify their position, and that their stance speaks for itself. In my opinion, the consequences of intervention receive a considerable (and of course necessary) amount of scrutiny from critics, but the potential, often only ever theoretical consequences of anti-interventionist policies, do not receive that same scrutiny.

    To use your example, I would also argue that responsibility for the taking of hostages and the killing of civilians, as in the case of the Algerian crisis, rests with the perpetrators and not with NATO. It is important to remember that the demands of Islamist groups such as Ansar Dine do not centre around the ‘meddling of the West in their affairs’ but rather around the desire to impose Islamic law on the region. I accept that intervention can agitate individuals and encourage them to support these groups, but the core values of groups like Ansar Dire are not reasonable, fair or, I would suggest, representative of the wishes of the majority of people in Mali. In my view, the west has a duty to oppose the values of fascism wherever they arise. I’d be really interested to hear your further thoughts on this.

    Thanks again for your comments.


  4. Good article. To address Alex’s comments, aid, capacity building, training forces, etc, are obviously not alternatives to intervention in Mali because all of those things existed prior to the revolt in the north and none of them prevented it. Force is as much a tool in dealing with problem like Mali’s as writing a cheque.

    Plus, aiding illiberal regimes with support and money – particularly training their security forces – carries its own risks and moral concerns which I thought StWC were aware of.

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