Happy Easter and a look at the year so far

Image by Jan Kameníček

Image by Jan Kameníček

The blog will be taking a short break over Easter, so to keep you going here’s 5 popular blog posts from the year so far.

1. The invasion of Iraq did many things, putting young people off politics wasn’t one of them.

This year marked the 10th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War and there has been a lot of talk in the media about the impact that the war has had on people’s faith in politics and in particular on the young people who marched against the war back in 2003. However, this post by Stuart Fox looks at the data on the political attitudes of young people and concludes that the Iraq War did not in fact have a significant impact on their faith in politics.

2. Making an impact: Why political scientists should engage with the media and how to deal with the media.

We started a series of posts on academic impact this year and as part of that series Philip Cowley wrote this useful two-part guide on why and how to engage with the media. It’s packed with useful tips and well worth a read.

3. What will become of the May 2015 UK Parliament if Scotland votes ‘Yes’ on independence.

The vote on Scottish independence is schedules for 2014 and if the ‘Yes’ vote wins implementation will begin in 2016, so what happens to the 57 Scottish MPs elected in the May 2015 election? In this post geopolitics experts Ron Johnson, Chris Pattie and David Rossiter examine the possible consequences and outcomes.

4. The power of Euromyths shows substantial effort is needed to change the debate on the EU.

In February we launched a collaborative series of posts on euroscepticism with the LSE’s British Politics and Policy and EUROPP blogs. This post from the series looks at the familiar euromyths, such as bendy bananas, and their corrosive effect on the possiblity of mature debate about the EU. You can also take a look at some of the other posts in the series here: Euroscepticism.

5. How and why is North Africa depicted by the US and EU as the ‘next Afghanistan’?

We had a number of posts looking at the situation in Mali and North Africa. This post from Nottingham graduate Rhiannon Bannister looks at why North Africa is increasingly being referred to as the ‘next Afghanistan’ and argues that this label serves the US and EU’s security agendas.

We’ll be back on 8th April so see you then!

The MoD’s planning for Mali must include learning lessons from the past

Ministry of Defence Headquarters

Ministry of Defence Headquarters. Image by Chris Nyborg.

As the UK assistance to the French-led operation in Mali has already grown from logistical support to sending troops, the MoD will no doubt be planning for any additional scenarios and possible forms of operations within the country. However, in planning for the future the MoD needs to ensure that it takes greater account of lessons from the past.

The MoD have a number of processes in place for identifying lessons to be learnt from the past; routine reviews of operations reported through the chain of command, ‘lessons learned’ exercises conducted after each operation, Board of Inquiries for accidents or incidents, internal inquiries for extraordinary occurrences as well as routine scrutiny from the House of Commons Defence and Foreign Affairs Committees and the National Audit Office.

In 2006, as a result of a number of failings in Iraq, the MoD sought to improve its learning process further. In an effort to provide a coherent database of lessons, which spanned across land, air and sea as well as lessons at a tactical, operational and strategic level, the Directorate of Operational Capability introduced Defence-wide Lessons Management.

This established a learning hierarchy within the MoD and included working groups, a lessons board, a defence lessons workshop every six months and a universal information system which enabled lessons to be formally identified and digitally archived.

As a result, the MoD offers the most comprehensive lesson learning programme within British overseas security, with relevant access available to all MoD ranks and environments. Nonetheless, the process continues to fail to ensure a rigorous transition from the identification of lessons to implementing and retaining them.

At the strategic level, implementation by senior figures is not effectively scrutinised. At the operational level responses are slow, with the National Audit Office reporting that many of the logistical difficulties in Iraq had been reported repeatedly since 1996 operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina. At the tactical level much lesson implementation occurs informally and remains unrecorded for future use.

For the lessons which are formally identified and implemented retention is low; taught information is forgotten, training is cancelled and The Canon of Army Doctrine offers intimidating and time consuming reading. Most significantly, although encouraged, personnel involved in planning are not obliged to consult with the MoD Lessons Team or the Defence Lessons Library to ensure that any new operation utilises useful lessons from the past.

To be able to move forward into future operations, including any activity in Mali, the MoD needs to strengthen its processes for looking back. Despite being the most committed British overseas security institution to a formalised lesson learning process this needs to be combined with a cultural commitment to scrutinising the process and developing beyond lesson identification to ensure that lessons are learnt. Greater resources and analysis must be directed to improving the lessons process, utilising the lessons data to draw wider conclusions, understanding the most successful methods of lesson implementation and developing systems to distil vast quantities of information into manageable amounts for those taking part in operations.

Louise Sullivan is a 1st year PhD student at the University of Nottingham

Sandcastles and dustclouds in Mali in the aftermath of France’s intervention

Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio

Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio

In his novel Desert the noble prize winning French author Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio describes the two waves of destruction to which nomad cultures in the Sahel have been subjected in the past 100 years: French colonialism on the one hand, and modern labour migration to metropole and the alienation that goes with it, on the other. Whereas French immigration policies since the 1980s have driven the latter to its climax, the arrival of French troops in Timbuktu has signed off another chapter of the first. In fact, French troops had taken Timbuktu already in 1894. In Le Clézio’s novel, the link between the two narratives is the family and love story that connects the main characters. However, from a political history point of view the connection is the way the West, in this case the French state, has appropriated, used, abused and pushed around the political entities in the Sahel and its people, whether by subjugating them to colonial rule or by exploiting them as cheap, immigrant labour.

The current intervention of France in Mali has all the signs of perpetuating this pattern. What is at stake in the North of Mali? As before the groups that the French were (supposedly) battling were constituted of people whose primary objective was to extract themselves from the state and its characteristics, whether imposed nationality and “national culture” or taxation and rules. As before their way of living and making a living, does not fit the state’s – whether the Malian or the French – aims. Remember that it is the state’s customs booth that transforms long-distance trading into trafficking and smuggling. Yet, contrary to Le Clézio’s novel and the impression one could gain from past events, most often these groups seek to evade the state and its forces rather than to fight them directly. Using their intimate knowledge of the extremely difficult terrain as well as their capacities to survive in this hostile environment, these state-evading groups have commonly retreated into the desert, away from the grip of the state.

When France started marching on Timbuktu last week much of this hide-and-seek game seemed to be repeated. The French met no resistance when they “took” one city after the other… the “terrorists” had evaporated. Finding them is an almost impossible task if the sheer vastness of the territory is considered, but searching for them is a perfect excuse for the US to send in their drones for surveillance of the vast Sahel desert. Yet, what exactly they are seeking, who these people are and what kind of threat they represent – other than not accepting the state (which for a state, of course, is bad enough) – nobody yet knows.

If the French intervention has confirmed the Malian government’s belief that only force can hold the country together and keep rebellious groups down, it has not solved any political problems at all. Although Mali has announced that it would take up negotiations with those groups who have abstained from violence, there is a large array of indicators that such initiatives are bound to fail. In fact, during all this marching and winning battles, no one, neither the Malian government nor the Western decision-makers, has proven that they actually know who these groups are, their motivations and what kind of modus vivendi could be found. France, by the way, happily makes known that they actually never cared, they just intervened to show who the strong man is (confirming Jean-Louis Arcand’s argument that the whole operation is a marketing campaign to rid President Hollande of his marshmallow image) and now that this is done they’ll go home, as French foreign minister Laurent Fabius declared“Maintenant, c’est aux pays africains de prendre le relais. Nous avons décidé de mettre les moyens en hommes et en matériel pour réussir cette mission et frapper fort. Mais le dispositif français n’a pas vocation à être maintenu. Nous partirons rapidement”. (Now it’s up to the African countries to take action. We have decided to provide men and equipment to make this operation a success and to show strong muscles. But the French mission is not meant to stay. We will leave quickly.)

Sahel desert

Sahel desert region by Magharebia

Yet, there are some things happening which clearly should not be part of any “liberation” or intervention to save civilians and which legitimately raise doubts over the Malian government’s willingness and capacity to successfully negotiate a political solution. In Gao and in Timbuktu, Arabs and Touaregs – or people who were said to be Arab or Touareg – were violently attacked, their shops plundered and cases of lynching were reported. Furthermore, past experiences with African “peacekeeping” troops leaves little hope that they can decisively advance a protracted conflict towards resolution. Not only have African troops (albeit others, too) been involved in many cases of abuse, extortion and violence, they also represent a bunch of autocratic governments that barely agree among themselves and who certainly have not shown any particular sensitivity or capacity to deal with non-state and secessionist groups and claims. As Jeffrey Herbst pointed out a long time ago there is nothing more stable and immobile in Africa than the state borders set by the colonial powers, and this is so at the wish and travail of the African, metropolitan and elite governments themselves. The metaphor does not quite fit the climate, but sending in African peacekeepers sounds very much like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.

The paroxysm is reached when the Malian government’s sole plan for pacification is to propose elections. Not only do we know from sufficient scholarly research (let’s just mention Snyder/Mansfield’s study) that elections tend to exacerbate tensions and may actually lead to the escalation of violence, but this proposition also comes from a putschist government! It’s now one year since the “interim” President Diokounda Traoré promised elections, there is little reason to believe that they will live up to this promise now. Last November he showed his discontent with the Prime Minister by having him arrested by the army and, after a short stint in an army camp outside town, had him declare his “resignation”. Clearly this is not a sign that this President is committed to peaceful deliberation and dialogue, and predisposed to give up power when elections or the constitution require him to do so. What will happen is that with an extended network of UN agencies, African Union institutions and NGOs, the government will be able to stretch its bureaucracy into those regions that are far removed from the political centre, hence, extending a little bit farther its claim to statehood.

World literature is usually recognized as such because the stories told and the ways they are told go beyond the particular national or cultural identity of the story teller. They speak to the whole world as they sublimate the specific themes into more general, timeless and ahistorical narratives, which can be recognized by more than just the culturally initiated. The great dust cloud stirred up in Mali has only reignited a circular movement where colonial power – oops, sorry, former colonial powers – work together with local sedentary chiefs to establish and uphold a mirage of stateness, and, as a result, criminalising, marginalising and radicalizing those groups whose mode of life, culture and production evade the categories of the state. The violent and radical reaction of these groups serves as an excuse for expanding statist security and surveillance, hence pushing these groups further into the desert, hence marginalising them even more, hence… the wheel keeps on turning…

Catherine Goetze is the Head of the International Studies Division at the University of Nottingham China Campus. This post originally appeared on her person blog.

France in Mali… le bordel, quoi!

Like every socialist French government of the post-Cold War era, President François Hollande had pledged to set an end to French interference in African affairs, to end “la Françafrique”. As has happened with every socialist French government, it took merely a couple of months to set an end not to Françafrique but to pledges of ending French fumbling around in their African “précarré”. But even if this intervention is consistent with France’s general interference in this region, the question ‘which concrete motives have pushed the president to send in the troops?’ now comes up (in this interview the former Director of the Collège Interarmées de Défense Vincent Desportes speaks of there being 3000 men in the region soon).  In the French media, there is a lot of speculation but little confirmed information.

The president’s declarations are not very elucidating or helpful either. He speaks of helping a befriended country (“pays ami”) or forestalling an Islamist threat on Europe, both of which are not only contradictory motives to invoke (wouldn’t there be the risk that French Islamists get upset over their government right now?) but also not very convincing. The armed conflict in Northern Mali has been dragging on almost a year, the Malian government is barely legitimate as it has come to power by a coup d’état, and what kind of Islamists actually are involved in the conflict, where they come from, how many they are and what their goals are is, for the time being, still cloaked in dust and vagueness. As for the other motive invoked, namely “saving French citizens” one wonders if a simply evacuation operation would not be more appropriate, cheaper and less, how to say, raising dust?

Several analysts speculate that the motives of securing and maintaining access to valuable natural resources in the Northern Mali, Mauritania, and Niger triangle are the most important. Indeed, a large part of the uranium of French nuclear power plants comes from this region and French companies are heavily involved in the extraction of gas, oil and minerals. A propensity for supporting conservative but secular authoritarian regimes like Boutelfika’s Algeria sits well with such a strategy of using the French military to secure access to mineral resources. As the past has shown, these governments rely heavily on the export rent and are, consequently, “manéable à merci”.

Like the US, France always had much better relationships with authoritarian dictators in Africa than with popular or even democratic regimes, and with Algeria this is certainly the case since the Algerian people were unfortunate enough to vote for the FIS (Front Islamique de Salut) in their first and subsequently stolen elections in 1991. Indeed, France’s schmoozing with Algeria has since always been disquieting given the latter’s way of fighting its own “war on terror”. For Algerians, the regime’s friendliness with the French government must have been even more disheartening given the latter’s sometimes hysterical immigration policies, growing and ever more visible Islamophobia and mischievous treatment of anything related to its colonial past, whether apologizing for the Parisian “ratonnade” of 1960 or the compensation of Algerian Harkis. For both, taking action against long-declared enemies of the state, the Touareg and its new allies, must be a most useful propaganda campaign.

The Islamist threat is another route to go down if one is looking for reasons for this intervention and it is the reason French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian put forward in an interview with French radio station Europe 1. Yet, what remains largely unclear is what is actually meant by “Islamism” in this context. Of course, the one-size-fits-all label of “Al Qaida” appears now and again, and, of course, these Islamists are all Salafists. The problem is simply that both labels don’t tell us an awful lot about what these people want, who they are, where they come from, what they are fighting for or against and so on. The British anthropologist Jeremy Keenan goes so far as to simply deny that radical Islamism exists in the Sahara and claiming that this is all a set-up of the Algerian secret services.

This is, obviously, an unevidenced and hardly provable conspiracy theory yet it points to the utter ignorance and confusion that exists once more serious questions about the programme, identity, organisation, or even nationality and support of these so-called Islamists are asked. Some of them seem to be Touareg, some not. Some seem to have been financed by Qatar, some not. Some seem to be “left-overs” of the Libyan war, some are apparently coming from Algeria, and others are “Malian” by name although not by allegiance. Indeed, as this analysis makes clear their internal dissensions and distinctions make these groups appear less unified.

Since In Amenas it is obvious that some of these groups do represent a major threat to economic interests in the region and to the people living in their way, even with the claim of Mokhtar Belmokhtar to be representing Al Qaida. According to Jeremy Keenan’s The Dark Sahara, Belmokhtar was in the past rather more involved in smuggling and trafficking than in radical Islam, although he has been listed in 2003 on the UN black list of Al Qaida members. As of most terrorists, very little is known of this man, his intentions and workings. Al Qaida also does not seem to be the principal group in Northern Mali that promotes the saturation of Islam as a political system but Ansar Dine, which up to now has not been engaged in fighting and killings. How are the two related, if at all? No clear information is available on this.

Hence, there is much more speculation than secure knowledge about the various armed groups, their finances and financiers, the sources of their armament, and their goals and aims. Even more confusing is the question of whether they are allied with the Touareg forces, namely the MLNA (Mouvement pour la Liberation Nationale de l’Azawad), or not, and if this is an alliance of convenience or of a more durable kind. Just recently the MLNA announced that it would fight back the “Islamists”.

Given that little is known about these groups and that they are represented as terrorists in order to make up for this little and uncertain knowledge, the argument that they represent a threat to Europe is, to say the least, surprising. The right wording does seem to be rather that they are threatening European economic interests in the Sahara. They are also threatening a political order which is certainly not democratic or free but determined to protect “good relations” with France. This is why they are considered dangerous by the French government. Hollande is leading a very simplistic, post-colonial and short-sighted intervention, that’s all, and that will probably soon be too much. Just as with other operations of this kind, France is actually risking making the situation more complicated and risks engaging in a much more protracted and long-lasting war of attrition than they expect.

Critical and notably self-critical reflections on how and why France has contributed to “terror” in the world are indeed not the most obvious characteristic of this or any other French government. It is dragging other countries like the Chad into this operation, thereby legitimizing their anything but democratic governments; it is polarizing even more the antagonism between the Touareg and the Southern Malian population, making any political solution to the Touareg’s claim to autonomy (or even independence) difficult, it is conferring unwittingly a legitimacy to the radicalization of Islam in the region; it is reinforcing fears of Islamist terrorism in France and in Europe, hence playing into the hands of its own right-wing xenophobic parties and probably generally intensifying Islamophobia in France; it is intensifying the guerrilla tactics of those armed groups, hence offering more opportunities for small arms circulation; and, if Stathis Kalyvas’s The Logic of Violence in Civil War is to be believed, creating more situations of brutal exaction as uncertainty in the population’s loyalty is increasing. As one common consequence of most asymmetric and guerrilla wars of attrition is the mushrooming of camps and detention centres with their practices of surveillance and torture, the French government is also pushing even more the war in the shadows. In short, it will be creating a much bigger mess than it can fix.

Catherine Goetze is the Head of the International Studies Division at the University of Nottingham China Campus. This post originally appeared on her person blog.