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The New Scramble for Africa

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The deployment of French troops to Mali has put that large and impoverished African nation in the media’s spotlight. We are being told France’s intervention, which the US military is supporting, is necessary to prevent the country from being overrun by Muslim fanatics and terrorists.

However, the intervention by a former colonial power into the affairs of yet another African country raises important questions regarding the wider geopolitical interests of the Western states, not only in Mali, but in the entire African continent.

It should be pointed out that the current troubles in Mali are a direct consequence of the U.S./NATO war on Libya in 2011.

The U.S./NATO intervention in Libya served to escalate that conflict; turning an uprising into a full-blown civil war in which the rebel forces, backed by Western air power and clandestine ground operations, were able to topple the Gaddafi regime. The U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1973 on March 17, 2011, authorizing NATO to enforce a no-fly zone, supposedly to protect civilians. But two days later, the Western governments exceeded their “responsibility to protect” mandate and breached the UN Charter under which they were ostensibly operating when they announced their intention to carry out regime change.

By the end of the conflict, according to the UN Human Rights Council, somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 people had been killed. Western-backed rebels, including al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, committed the worst atrocities. The collapse of the regime, the ensuing mayhem, and the flooding of the region with arms has had the predictable result of destabilizing neighboring countries.

Hence we have the today’s murky crisis in Mali, which is an ethnic, sectarian, and separatist conflict that is being stoked and complicated by outside interests, namely Western governments.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a Salafi-jihadist militant group operating in North Africa and reportedly part of an Islamist alliance vying for power in Mali, has been identified as the threat du jour. While many experts of the region have suggested that AQIM poses a terrorist threat in North Africa, it is unclear how the group threatens Europe or the United States. Adding to the confusion is the fact that AQIM is associated with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which was the recipient of prodigious Western support when it took part in the U.S./NATO overthrow of Gaddafi.

It is understandable to be confused by this turn of events. The netherworld of covert operations and intelligence is one of constantly shifting alliances where an enemy can become an ally overnight and vise versa. It is a cynical and treacherous business that, once exposed, betrays the hypocrisy, ruthlessness, and greed of the Western imperial powers.

Furthermore, the Western powers now engaged militarily in Mali are not exactly standing on firm moral ground. After all, if the imperialists in Washington, London, and Paris were really concerned with protecting human rights and stemming the spread of Muslim extremism, why are they so friendly with the Saudi state, the primary propagator of the Wahhabist/Salafist movement and a notorious violator of human rights?

Indeed, rather than combating Muslim extremism, Western powers have historically encouraged its spread. Robert Dreyfuss’s Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam and John Cooley’s Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism both detail the role Western intelligence agencies have played in spurring Islamic fundamentalism as part of a divide-and-conquer strategy. Trilateral Commission founder and former Carter national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski and former CIA director and U.S. defense secretary Robert Gates have both boasted of promoting fundamentalist Islam as part of a grand strategy to undermine the Soviet Union. And it is a fact that al-Qaeda and the Taliban grew out of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, who were created and funded by the CIA, MI6, and the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence.

It is not difficult to surmise why Mali might be attractive to the Western powers. Mali is Africa’s third-largest gold producer and is thought to possess large uranium deposits as well as other minerals. The country also has unexplored oil and gas fields that are coveted by Western petroleum companies.

And the Western powers are not the only ones eying Africa’s resources. China has moved to penetrate African markets in recent years. But rather than following the Western strategy of propping up dictators, fomenting civil wars, and bombing recalcitrant countries, China is seeking the cooperation of African governments by exchanging infrastructure investment for natural resources.

China has agreed to lend various African governments a total of $20 billion over the next three years for infrastructure and agriculture development. Beijing has also committed to send medical personnel to the continent as well as to implement training programs for African workers. Trade between China and Africa has expanded to over $150 billion a year, and this relationship has been formalized in the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC).

China’s increased investment in Africa over the past decade has not escaped the attention of the Western powers.

But Africans have understandably grown weary of the West’s gunboat diplomacy and its twisted version of “free trade,” whereby the continent’s natural resources are extracted at fire-sale prices and nothing but despoiled land and crushing debt is left behind. It also understandable that African politicians find the Chinese model of development loans in exchange for access to markets a far more preferable deal than the West’s economic-hit-man model, which has been in place for so many years and has led to such immeasurable suffering in Africa and around the world.

Now, whether China’s investments in Africa will pan out and improve the living standards of the average African is an open question. However, the fact that these deals are being cut outside the Anglo-American sphere may encourage the Western powers to establish a larger permanent military presence on the continent. It’s a game as old as empire itself.

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    Tim Kelly is a columnist and policy advisor at The Future of Freedom Foundation in Fairfax, Virginia, a correspondent for Radio America’s Special Investigator, and a political cartoonist.