Is our fear of dirty bombs leading us to disaster in Mali?

Alexander Pannett 11.50am image

The crisis in Mali has reached new heights with the announcement that the UK will be sending 350 troops to the region.

The task of the soldiers is to train the Malian army and their deployment is seen as signaling a more long-term commitment to the region by the UK.

The use of soldiers is an escalation of the UK’s support for France, which had previously been solely logistical with the provision of two RAF transport planes. It inevitably raises fears of mission creep at a time of severe cutbacks to the UK defence budget.

However, there is a contradiction between the direct intervention in Mali and the less overt anti-terrorist approach taken in Yemen and Somalia. Why the sudden urgency and build up of Western troops?

The main issue which has not been widely reported in the Western press is the uranium mining area of north Niger, which borders Mali.

According to a 2008 report by a French parliamentary committee, about 18 per cent of the raw material used to power France’s 58 nuclear reactors came from Niger in 2008.

If the uranium mines fell under the control of Islamic fundamentalists then nuclear dirty bombs could become a real terrorist threat to Europe. This is especially worrying considering the relative ease of smuggling illicit goods into Europe from the North African coast.

The mines are also located in an area controlled by the Tauregs, a nomadic tribe that spreads across south-west Sahara and whose alliance with Islamic extremists has formed the backbone of the Malian rebels.  The Tauregs have been fighting for autonomy against a Malian army that has been accused of extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses against Taureg civilians by Amnesty International.

The Algerian hostage crisis underlined the threat of Islamic extremism in the Saharan region.  It is important to the security and peaceful development of the world that any extremism is countered and exposed for the narrow and cruel bigotry that it is.

However, too often the West has papered over complex local economic and cultural issues with its simple response to extremist views.

The Tauregs appear to be fighting against an unjust Malian government that arose to power after an army coup in 2012. The Tauregs crave self-determination much as Americans, Irish, Polish and other Western peoples have in the past. To ignore their plight is immoral and short-sighted. It could lead to a calamitous strategic blunder as the Malian campaign descends into bitter guerrilla warfare against impoverished but tenacious people fighting for their freedom.

It would be folly to let the ideological fight against religious extremism force the West against uprisings that cloak their vocabulary with Sharia law but are nationalistic in their ambitions not religious. The analogy of Vietnam is disturbing.

After Afghanistan and Iraq, the West should be careful that it is not entering a hornet’s nest of complex secular and tribal divisions.  Whilst concern over the security of uranium mines in the region is rational, Britain and France should not predicate such concern with the vicarious brutalization of persecuted peoples to further the distasteful ends of corrupt and illegitimate regimes.

In a campaign that lacks specific goals, ensuring autonomy for the Tauregs would do more to bring peace and stability to the region than the re-conquest of isolated desert towns. A political and cultural solution is preferable to a military reaction.

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