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The new “war on terrorism” must be halted. French Troops out of Mali!

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"France represents only humanitarian interests,” insists French president François Hollande. It is solely a case of the war against terrorism, he says; an attempt to stop al-Qaeda gaining another Afghanistan or Somalia – a collapsed state from which to mount operations into the “civilised” world of the imperialist powers.

It might seem strange that after a decade of imperialist wars and interventions the world’s media so readily swallowed this, hook, line and sinker. They ignore the fact that France has intervened militarily 60 times in its former colonies in Africa since they gained independence. What a lot of humanitarianism!

Yet the Malian crowds cheering French troops in the country’s capital, Bamako, seem to justify this humanitarian intervention. The brutalities of Islamist forces in the north of the country, their assaults on the historic religious practices of the people there, also seem to confirm this.

Hollande’s excuse for his imperialist invasion is strengthened by the fact that practically all sides of the French parliament either supported the intervention or offered no real opposition to it. This is naturally true for the governing Socialists and their Green allies, as well as the bourgeois Gaullists and the extreme right National Front.

But even the Left Party (Parti de Gauche) of Jean Luc Mélenchon could not bring itself to unequivocally reject the intervention. In a statement on January 15, the party failed to demand the withdrawal of troops from Mali but asked only that they should restrict their operations to the South of the country.

On 14 January, the French Communist Party (PCF) took a position even further to the right, demanding that French troops should carry out their mission under the aegis of the United Nations and the African Union. This is the scantiest fig leaf for supporting the intervention since, even though the UN has not so far mandated intervention by France, it has by the West African Alliance, ECOWAS, and, if asked, the UN Security Council would certainly do so.

The Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA), by contrast, has openly opposed the intervention, rightly pointing out that France is the cause of most of the problems of the impoverished country and therefore cannot be the solution.

The European Union and the USA fully support the intervention and have promised France assistance. Britain and Germany are providing transport for soldiers of the West African Union. In Germany, the SPD, Greens and the liberal press only criticise Merkel's government for not having a stronger intervention.
In the UK parliament, Labour’s shadow defence secretary, Jim Murphy, said: "The situation in Mali is grave, with al-Qaeda controlling huge swathes of the country. Unchecked, this could become a real threat to the UK and others, and that is why we support the action that is being taken."

This broad range of support is further strengthened by reports from Mali itself. There, if one can believe the reports, the population is warmly welcoming French troops as saviours. The brutalities of Islamist rule in the north of the country, the recent hostage taking in the Algerian oil refinery and the evident near disintegration of the Malian army have helped bring this situation about. Indeed, Islamist activities or outright insurgencies threaten regimes across the region; not only in Mali and Algeria but in Niger and Nigeria, too.

There is no question about the reactionary aims of the different Islamist groups who want to establish a "theocracy" including imposing an extremely oppressive legal code, alien to the traditional Islamic practices of most Malians, and a terrible threat to the rights of women and the non-Muslim minorities. Even if some of their crimes have been exaggerated to serve Western propaganda objectives, there is no doubt about their reactionary character or about their being financed by Saudi and Mauritanian sources. Since the collapse of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, and on the basis of their temporary alliance with the Tuareg liberation organisation, MLNA, they have obtained better weapons and massively raised their firepower.

The alliance between the MLNA and the Islamists, hurriedly arranged at the beginning of 2012, was already collapsing before the French intervention. For the MLNA leadership, this proved an unprincipled and shortsighted alliance that resulted in enormous bloodshed among the general population as soon as the Islamist groups such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI) began to introduce their version of sharia law in the regions that they controlled.

This was the point at which the conflict with the population of North Mali sharpened massively. Although the majority are Muslims, they are by no means Salafist or Wahabi fundamentalists. The actions of the Islamist organisations led not only to a break with the MLNA but also to intensified conflicts with the organisations of other nationalities of Mali, of which there are some 30.

There is nothing to justify the claim by the arch reactionary Islamist groups that they are a form of "national" liberation movement. They are in an alliance only with a minority of the peoples of the North, playing upon the fact that the region has certainly been disadvantaged and oppressed for decades. For the most part they are seen as invaders who have targeted "unbelievers", are trying to destroy the region's own Islamic traditions and culture and, above all, to brutally oppress women.

How did the Islamists become so strong?

The Islamist groups are believed to have in the region of 2500 armed fighters. That they were able to take control of the north of the country can only be explained in the light of the colonial and post-colonial history, as well as the appalling consequences of neoliberal policies since the beginning of the 1990s. Together, these led to the near collapse of Malian society and government institutions. Mali is a typical product of "decolonisation". Its independence was more formal than real, with its economy and ruling elites tied irreversibly to French imperialism. In short, it is what Marxists call a semi-colony.

The borders of the new states of Francophone Africa, particularly those in the Sahel, were drawn by the colonial power and took no account of the traditional areas of settlement of individual peoples and their economic relations. Ever since, France has insisted on the "irreversibility" of these frontiers. Subsequently, this position has also been adopted by the OAU and today forms a kind of "raison d'être" for the postcolonial political regimes of West Africa.

At the time of the formation of these states, the interests and free movement of nomadic peoples like the Tuareg and Moors and other nationalities were trampled on. The Tuareg and Moors were always opposed to their regions being amalgamated, as impoverished and oppressed regions, into states south of the Sahara. Their first uprising was in 1963 but was brutally put down, as was another in 1990. Their ongoing struggle, which resumed in 2006, could not be defeated by the Malian army and resulted in the "demilitarisation" of the region, the withdrawal of the Malian army, and promises of inward investment.

The population is still awaiting those investments. In addition, the North was always disadvantaged with regard to infrastructure. The lack of these resources, and the increasing desertification, have had a severe impact on agriculture and cattle rearing. The economy and the society of the North have developed a "distorted" character. In the face of a general economic decline, the smuggling of raw materials, drugs and even people, together with “taxing” transport through the Sahara, became in many places the main source of income. In turn, this strengthened the fragmentation of the region along clan lines and scarce water supply was controlled by the armed groups, including the Islamists, in conjunction with criminal forces.

The neoliberal decline of the country

The economic decline and political chaos of Mali is clearly not limited to the North, even if this is the region that has been particularly hard hit. Enter that invariable agency of imperialist plunder and social misery in the semi-colonial world – the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Since 1991, the IMF has imposed a series of its notorious "structural adjustment programmes" on the country. These have meant cuts in infrastructure, health services, and social services as well as massive increases in prices.

The social consequences in a country that was already poor were dramatic. Today, some 30 per cent of the population is officially unemployed, approximately three times as many as 15 years ago. Only 50 per cent of children ever go to school and three quarters of the population are illiterate. One third of the people have no access to clean water and average life expectancy is just 48 years.

The unbearable poverty of the many goes alongside obscene riches for the few. Under IMF pressure, the 20 biggest state undertakings were sold off, often well below their market value, and mainly to French firms.

Developments in Mali are by no means unique; the same can be seen across the entire region. A similar, even if not so extreme, development can be seen in practically all the states of West Africa to the south of the Sahara. Mali is "only" so far the weakest link in the chain.

The coup and the political division of the country

Even if Mali had a formally democratic government before the coup of 2012, this was a political mask which covered up the inevitable corruption, clientelism, incompetence, enrichment, political oppression and subordination to the IMF and Western imperialist powers. Although the coup of March 22, 2012 was announced by army officers as the direct result of the failure of the government of President Amadou Tourmani Toure to recover and pacify the North, it also expressed a more general social discontent.

The "interim government" set up by the rebel officers drew its support not just from sections of the military and the elite but from part of the trade unions and peasant organisations, such as the “African Solidarity for Democracy and Independence” ASDI, the peasant union, “Earth, Labour, Dignity”, as well as the CSTM, one of the two big trade union confederations of the country. Alongside "recovering national dignity", the military regime promised an improvement in social conditions.

However, other forces were against the coup and a "united front for the defence of democracy" was organised by the former president, involving not just the right wing parties but also the Social Democratic RARENA (which previously had formed a common parliamentary fraction with the ASDI) and the "National Union of Workers of Mali", the other big union federation.

This shows one of the main factors in the political problems of the country. In a situation where the élite of the country are deeply divided, the leaders of the working class and the oppressed masses, the peasants and the urban and rural poor are, too. They have tied their own organisations and their followers amongst the masses to one or other faction of the ruling class and, through them, ultimately to the imperialist powers.

Above all, the nationalist promises of both wings of Mali's bourgeois parties, the military and the employers are intended to drag the mass of workers and peasants behind them. With the "recovery" of the North, they not only promised salvation from the threat of an Islamist takeover, an exit from social crisis and poverty, but also the totally reactionary goal of continued oppression of the Tuareg and Moors.

Because of the social and economic crisis, the "state structure" of Mali has been increasingly falling apart over recent years. That puts in question the continued ability of the Army and the state apparatus to hold the state and society together. However, such a meltdown of the Malian military and state machine would massively endanger the interests of the imperialist powers and their ability to intervene directly to secure their own dominance. Although in a different form, this is the same as the threat from the Islamists. The existing government could not be trusted to maintain its own apparatus without the intervention of their former colonial masters posing as "defenders of democracy".

In this, the Islamists are presented as a threat that serves to justify this intervention and the increasingly permanent stationing of troops. In reality, French imperialism is trying to prevent the collapse of a system whose decline and crisis was largely caused by its own actions and those of other imperialist institutions like the IMF.

French corporations penetrate, control and exploit the country, particularly its exports of gold, cotton, and cattle. Foreign direct investment (FDI) used to come overwhelmingly from France. However, in recent years, South African and Chinese companies have begun to penetrate the Malian economy. In the north of the country, there are huge untapped raw material resources to be developed, including uranium and oil. The French investments in the country have to be safeguarded and the country stabilised on behalf of all the imperialist investors. In this, the unity of Mali is not only an "ideological" issue; it also has a directly economic importance. “Securing Mali” means securing these riches.

The "conquest of the North", therefore, is not, as it is being presented, a "war against Islamists and terrorists". It would inevitably lead to the strengthening of the national oppression of the Tuareg and the Moors. It would not overcome the national and social roots of numerous insurrections, the poverty of the population, the decline of the economy and the expansion of semi-criminal forms of trade; rather it would strengthen them. In doing so it would strengthen the very conditions that allow the Islamist forces to flourish and attract support.

Lastly, Africa is a continent on which the struggle for the re-division of the world between rival imperialist powers and blocks is being played out. The securing of "Francophone Africa" is a key task for French imperialism in order to maintain itself as a player in the global struggle for power.

All these factors show that France's motives for intervention are anything but humanitarian, or a concern for democracy, women's rights and the welfare of the population. Just such motives were used to justify for the interventions in Afghanistan and in Iraq. It is interesting that the British prime minister claims this new front in the “war against terrorism” will last for at least ten years.

It makes no difference that the UN and all the other great powers, including Russia and China, but also the West African Union, welcomed the intervention, or that the Malian government and, indeed, both wings of the ruling elites, support the intervention by French troops.

The demand for French troops, with or without a mandate from the UN, is like demanding arsonists take over from the fire brigade. It must be opposed with no ifs and no buts. The labour movement and the entire left must campaign for the immediate withdrawal of these troops and against any imperialist intervention, whether unilaterally or in the name of the UN.

The tasks of the workers' movement in Mali

Clearly, just withdrawing French troops will not resolve the social and political problems of the country. Such a solution is not to be expected either from the imperialists or from the reactionary regimes of the Organisation of African Unity. The Malian government, the various fractions of the bourgeoisie and landlords, the different wings of the military, have all shown themselves completely unable to solve a single one of the great problems facing the country. Only the working class would be able to do this with the support of workers across the artificially divided region. However, to do that, it must itself break out of its subordination to the different wings of the elite of the country. Only then, could it credibly implement a programme that could draw the masses of the population, the peasants and the urban and rural poor to its side.

One of its first priorities must be to overcome the deep gulf between the regions and nationalities of the country. The "reconquest" of the North is a reactionary programme that will only prepare the next war. The tensions can only be overcome if the right of self-determination of the Tuareg, the Moors and all other nationalities is clearly and unequivocally recognised. That must include their right to separation if the majority of the population of the region so wish.

At the same time, as long as the Malian state exists within its present borders, all forms of discrimination and disadvantage must be abolished, their languages must be recognised and there must be no discrimination in the distribution of resources. Indeed, the building of infrastructure and the development of the North must be a major priority.

In this way, any reforming of an alliance between the Tuareg and the Islamists can be undermined a thousand times more easily than with the bayonets of occupiers. Such a solution to the problem would also have the advantage that it would establish an example for all the other countries of West Africa and the Sahara. The arbitrary drawing of borders and the oppression of national minorities are problems of the entire region, the entire continent. They can only be resolved by combining the right of national self-determination with the struggle for a Federation based on equality.

A second fundamental question is how to protect the population from reactionary interventions, including attacks by the Islamist militia. For this there is one measure that would be a thousand times more effective and democratic than French troops, assistance from other imperialist states or the West African Union or the rearming of the Mali army. That is the arming of the workers, the peasantry, the poor and the refugees from the North, above all the women. This will allow them to build their own militia with their own commanders, a militia under their own control and not that of an elite officer caste. In the Army, it is necessary to build councils and for soldiers who enjoy the trust of the masses to provide military training.

However, the democratic question also concerns the political regime, the presidential pseudo-democracy in the country. Instead of a presidential office, or a "democracy" controlled by a corrupt civil service, we stand for the election of a constituent assembly that should be controlled and convened by committees of workers, peasants and the masses. Such a constituent assembly would mean that the various programmes of the different parties and classes could be directly counter posed to one another.

This would make clear that the major democratic questions cannot be separated from social questions. Under the rule of a bourgeois government, in whatever form, the further decline of the country and a further impoverishment of the population are unavoidable. The only way out is through the rule of the working class which could expropriate industry, banks, trade and land, whether in imperialist or domestic hands, and introduce an emergency plan for the reorganisation of the economy under workers' control in order to satisfy the most urgent needs of the population.

That means the formation of a workers' and peasants' government. Even under its regime the situation would remain precarious. The problems caused by colonialism and imperialism cannot be resolved simply on the national scale, they need an alliance of working-class movements and the oppressed of the other neighbouring countries. They demand the expansion of the revolution, which would shake the whole continent, the formation of a Socialist Federation of West Africa.

In the European Union and the USA, the tasks of socialists and the antiwar movement is to denounce the French intervention and its British and German supporters. WE must denounce too those “socialists” or “communists” who support, however critically, the “humanitarian” intervention. The war against terrorism that has devastated Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Somalia must not spread like a dreadful plague over sub-Saharan Africa. Socialists in the EU must demand the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of French forces and, indeed, the closure of all the Nato powers' bases in the region.