Thanks to French President Francois Hollande, who felt the need to step in to contain the collapse of Mali, and a calamitous rescue operation by Algerian forces that resulted in the deaths of 37 hostages, the Western media has discovered Mali.
The largest West African country is under threat of division in a war that sees government troops, along with a Western coalition led by the French, battling well-armed ethnic Tuaregs and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Ansaruldin group, who were already at war with each other.
Once known as French Sudan, Mali is one of France's main allies in sub-Saharan Africa. Fears are growing in Paris that the chaos might spill out to neighboring states fom what was anciently called "French West Africa," drastically affecting regional and international stability and peace. But that’s not all. France is concerned the spread will put what remains of its influence in this part of the world under serious threat.
The war in Mali, many believe, wasn’t entirely unpredictable for those keeping a close eye on the situation. There were strong indicators, such as weaponry and fighters crossing the loose borders. The country was forced to face the ambitions of well-armed ethnic Tuareg fighters, who returned home after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime in Libya.
Tuaregs revived their 100-year-old dream of an independent state in the Azawad territory to the north of Mali. They took advantage of a coup d'état that ousted President Amado Toumani Toure to control their area and declare independence with the help of an al-Qaeda-affiliated group.
The latter were looking for a safe haven in a hostile environment, especially amid the end of the Libyan war. The Islamists, later on, overthrew the Tuaregs and installed Shariah law in the area, a move some sources suggest was prompted by post-revolution Libya, whose leaders were keen to uproot any pro-Gadhafi sentiments near their borders.
Post-revolution Libya is perhaps the most critical factor in the struggle for Mali; the fall of Gaddafi and the links the Ansaruldin have with the new rulers of Tripoli gave this war a different perspective. It is as if Mali were the arena where another version of the Libyan war resumed, though with different objectives.
Less than two years ago, NATO strikes helped the rebellion in Libya and paved the way for the opposition to end 40 years of Gadhafi rule. At that time foreign intervention was welcomed by Libyans, and not much opposed by Arabs and Muslims. This was in stark contrast with the reaction to foreign intervention in Iraq in 2003.
While in Libya, I had the chance to meet Abdulmonem Al Mukhtar, once a member of the Islamic Libyan fighting group, who was killed just weeks after we met in April 2011. Al Mukhtar fought against the Americans in Afghanistan and returned to Libya on March 2011 along with 100 of his loyal fighters to take part in the war.
Near Ajdabiya, to the east of Libya, I asked how he could be an enemy of NATO in Afghanistan and an ally in Libya. He laughed, told me not to be a “fanatic" and added, "In Afghanistan, they are an occupation force. Here, they are helping us topple the dictator."
It wasn’t only Abdulmonem who approached the situation this way. Everyday people gave similar answers, and mainstream media organizations weren’t far behind in that logic. There was a common belief that in a war for liberation, all means were justifiable.
Later on some of the Syrians revolting against President Bashar al-Assad started demanding foreign intervention to help them defeat the regime, and so did those who supported them around the Arab and Muslim world. People initially welcomed foreign intervention — at least, until they contemplated it further.
As a result of the Libyan war, a new war started in the region. Once again, the tables are turned. Yesterday’s allies in Libya are today’s enemies in Mali. Voices refusing foreign intervention became louder and louder, calling on the West, specifically France, to respect the sovereignty of the sub-Saharan state. Some dubbed the military intervention a new crusade, while the presidents of Egypt and Tunisia and the prime minister of Libya all warned the intervention will fuel conflict in the region.
Many didn’t realize that a war in Mali had surfaced until news of foreign intervention made headlines. Some are starting to raise questions about the consequences of foreign military intervention, and the forces it will unleash. The Libyan “success” preceded the terrorist attack on the US consulate in Ben Ghazi, which killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, and now we have Mali.
It is not that the war in Mali started only now; it's only now that the world started thinking of its consequences.
Ali Hashem is an Arab journalist who is serving now as Almayadeen news network's chief correspondent.