Europe & world Europe abroad

War in Mali: Europe goes to war blindfold

28 January 2013
La Repubblica Rome

Remarkably for a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Europe has been at war for close to 15 years: in the Balkans, in Afghanistan, in Libya, and today in the Sahel. However, an Italian editorialist argues, European intervention has consistently been marked by an absence of long-term vision.

On the eve of elections in Italy [in February] and in Germany [in September] the lack of discussion over a subject as important as war is astonishing. Because a conflict is occurring elsewhere, it is not discussed. Yet, war permeates deep into our bones, and has done so for a long time.

Because it lacks a common political government, the European Union is not leading the war but it is, nonetheless, now part of its daily routine. If we add the never-ending fight against terrorism to the fighting that spread throughout the Balkans at the end of the 20th Century, Europeans have been sporadically participating in armed conflicts for the past 14 years. At first, these were the object of heated debates: are these wars really necessary? And if not, what are we fighting for? Are they truly for humanitarian reasons or are they destructive? And what assessment are we to make of the War on Terror at the global level: has it reduced or increased terrorism?

Political leaders are not answering these questions and no European country is raising the issue of a Union that has nothing to say on the question of war because it is too focused on its currency. Entering blindly into a new neo-colonial war, Europe is advancing into a fog-filled future.

What we read about wars is misleading

War – often bloody and rarely fruitful – is never called by its true name. It moves forward hidden behind a mask: an initiative that will stabilise countries that have collapsed and bring them democracy and, most of all, one that will be short and not costly. This is the case with the war that began on January 13 in Mali, which is led by the France of François Hollande with the feeble support of African troops and the – retroactive – support of France's European allies.

In violation of the Treaty of Lisbon (articles 32 and 347), there was no prior discussion. We are almost always thrown into war. We even have someone – pompously called "EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy" – to thank France, while immediately explaining that Paris will have to go it alone "in the absence of a European military force". This is certainly a faithful snapshot of the situation, but a difference discourse could be expected from someone occupying such an important function.

Much of what we read about the war is false: it does not call for reflection on the event but rather for us to, passively, take note and to consider the conflicts as isolated cases without any relation to each other. War also causes improvised experts and technicians to crawl out of the woodwork. Intervention is becoming a European habitus, copied from the United States, but we are never told the long version of this story of metamorphosis, which links the conflicts together and sheds light on the global situation. It is a narrative that requires a global view defining our role in Africa, in Afghanistan and in the Persian Gulf. One that compares our vision to that of other countries. One that scrutinises China's policy in Africa, which is so determined and so different to ours: theirs is based on investment while ours is focused soley on military considerations.

A long-term, global view would allow a clear-headed assessment of those conflicts that lack clear goals, geographical boundaries or defined timetables. These are interventions which, instead of containing them, have resulted in the rise of Jihadists, spreading conflict from Afghanistan to the Sahara region and the Sahel. In these recent conflicts, we have learned nothing from the errors of the past, because these were systematically not discussed. Giving interventions noble-sounding names is insufficient to hide their disastrous results: these interventions do not lead to order but to chaos, not to strong States but to ones that are even weaker than before. And when intervention comes to an end, countries are abandoned to their fate, leaving those who were assisted with a strong sense of disillusionment. And then we are off to new fronts, as if the history of war were a safari tour in search of exotic spoils.

Neccessary and humanitarian wars

Mali is a textbook case of a necessary and humanitarian war. Over the past decade, the adjective humanitarian has lost its innocence. It was necessary to intervene to stop the Rwandan genocide in 1994, and if we did not act, it was because the United Nations withdrew its troops just when the extermination began. It was, on the other hand, necessary to avoid the exodus – towards Europe – of the Kosovars chased by the Serbian Army. On-going conflicts, however, are not necessary because they clearly do not stop terrorists. Nor do they foster democracy. Otherwise, how can one explain the alliance made with Saudi Arabia or the amounts in aid accorded to Riyadh which are higher than those awarded to Israel? Not only is the Saudi kingdom not democratic, but it is one of the main suppliers of funds for terrorism.

The collapse of the situation in Mali would have been avoidable if Europeans had paid more attention to the country. Considered for years to be a beacon of democracy, Mali sank deeper into poverty, reviving the problems posed by its artificial colonial borders. The long-standing struggle for independence of the Tuaregs, which had been ignored for decades, reached its culmination on April 6, 2012 when the region of Azawad in northern Mali declared independence. In order to combat the initailly secular Tuareg independence movements, the formation of Islamic militias was tolerated — a repetition of the error previously made in Afghanistan. As a result, the Tuaregs received support from [former Libyan leader Muammar] Gaddafi. When he fell, they turned for help to the Islamic fighters who invaded North Mali in early 2012, and thereafter co-opted and distorted the Tuaregs' struggle.

Wars that arise from the ashes of other wars

Our most serious error is our failure to consider the wars of recent decades from a global standpoint. An operation on a specific spot of the globe has repercussions elsewhere. Failures in Afghanistan engendered the Libyan conflict, while the half-failed Libyan effort is responsible for the situation in Mali. The problem is that each new conflict begins without any critical analysis of previous conflicts. In Libya, complacency continued until the assassination, in Benghazi, of the United States Ambassador, Christopher Stevens, on September 11, 2012. It took this event to demonstrate that many of Gaddafi's militia troops – Tuaregs or Jihadists – had moved into the Azawad region. And that the war was not over, but that it was about to rise from its ashes in Mali.

In the past seven years, the number of democracies in Africa has fallen from 24 to 19. This is a failure for Europe and for the West. Meanwhile, China is looking on and rubbing its hands, while consolidating its presence on the continent. Currently, its interventionist behaviour consists of building roads, a far cry from making war. This is also colonialism, but colonialism of a different kind. China's strengths are its resilience and patience. Perhaps Europe and the US are so bellicose because they wish to dispute Beijing's rising power in Africa and Asia. This is only a hypothesis, but if Europe started to talk, it could also talk about this issue, and that would be useful.

Factual or translation error? Tell us.