The Mali Blowback: More to Come?

The French-led military offensive in its former colony of Mali has pushed back radical Islamists and allied militias from some of the country’s northern cities, freeing the local population from repressive Taliban-style totalitarian rule. The United States has backed the French military effort by transporting French troops and equipment and providing reconnaissance through its satellites and drones. However, despite these initial victories, it raises concerns as to what unforeseen consequences may lay down the road.

Indeed, it was such Western intervention—also ostensibly on humanitarian grounds—that was largely responsible for the Malian crisis in the first place.

The 2011 NATO military intervention in Libya effort went well beyond the UN Security Council mandate to protect civilian lives, as the French, British and U.S. air forces—along with ground support by the Saudi and Qatari dictatorships—essentially allied themselves with the rebel armies. The African Union—while highly-critical of Qaddafi’s repression—condemned the intervention, fearing that the resulting chaos would result in the Libya’s vast storehouse of arms might fueling local and regional conflicts elsewhere in Africa and destabilize the region.

This is exactly what happened.

Whereas the nonviolent revolution against the neighboring Tunisian dictatorship resulted in a positive contagion of unarmed pro-democracy civil insurrections, the violent intervention in Libya resulted in a negative contagion of armed rebellions.

This is particularly tragic since Mali was seen, until recently, as one of the more hopeful political stories in Africa.

In 1991, more than two decades prior to similar pro-democracy uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Malians engaged in a massive nonviolent resistance campaign that brought down the dictatorship of Moussa Traoré. A broad mobilization of trade unionists, peasants, students, teachers, and others created a mass pro-democracy movement throughout the country. Despite the absence of Facebook or the Internet, virtually no international media coverage, and the massacre of hundreds of peaceful protesters, this popular civil insurrection succeeded not only in ousting a repressive and corrupt regime, but ushered in more than two decades of democratic rule.

Though—like most states in the region—the country struggled with corruption, poverty, and a weak infrastructure, Mali was widely considered to be the most democratic country in West Africa. In order to educate and promote the rights and duties of its citizens, the government implemented a program called the “Decentralization Mission” in 1993 to encourage popular participation in local and regional elections. Independent radio stations and newspapers emerged and the country experienced lively and open political debate.

The events surrounding the nonviolent revolution of 1991 were regularly commemorated, with the anniversary of the March 26 massacre a national holiday. A series of monuments in the capital of Bamako also commemorate the pro-democracy struggle.

In the years since the 1991 revolution, even contentious politics was expressed largely nonviolently. There were several periods of student-led protests in the 1990s against high unemployment and other negative effects of structural adjustment programs imposed by international financial institutions, contributing to the fall of one government through a “no-confidence” vote in parliament. The tradition of nonviolent resistance against authoritarianism came to the fore in 2001 when a proposed constitutional referendum put forward by President Alpha Oumar Konaré was called off after a series of protests by those fearing it would have threatened the country’s independent judiciary and effectively made the president immune to prosecution. Additional protests against neoliberal economic policies erupted in 2005. Hundreds peacefully demonstrated against the 2006 visit by then-French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy in protest at his tough policies against immigrants. That same year, Mali hosted the World Social Forum, a mass gathering of thousands of activists from hundreds of civil society organizations.

History has shown that dictatorships overthrown through largely nonviolent civil insurrections are far more likely to evolve into stable democracies than dictatorships ousted through armed revolution or foreign intervention. Mali appeared to be a prime example of this phenomenon.

Indeed, soon after the March Revolution of 1991, the Malian government negotiated a peace agreement with armed rebels from the Tuareg minority in the north of the country, in which they agreed to end their rebellion in return for a degree of autonomy. In March 1996, there was a massive ceremonial burning of the rebels’ surrendered weapons in the capital of Bamako.

By 2012, the Malian government, led by President Amadou Toumani Touré, was becoming increasingly unpopular, failing to address and even exacerbating structural inequalities reinforced by neoliberal edicts from international financial institutions and increasingly corrupt and self-serving political leaders, local business elites, and the civil service. However, the aging president was scheduled to retire immediately following elections later in the year and it was hoped that a growing civil society movement and new leadership could more adequately address these problems.

These concerns, however, were quickly overshadowed by a renewed rebellion in the north. When last year’s initially nonviolent uprising in Libya against the Gaddafi regime turned to armed struggle, resulting in even greater government repression and thereby prompting NATO intervention, disparate armed groups—including Tuareg tribesmen— ended up liberating major stores of armaments. These vast caches of weapons were passed on to Tuaregs in Mali who, now having the means to effectively challenge the Malian government militarily, dramatically escalated their long-dormant rebellion under the leadership of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).

Elements of the Malian army believed that Touré’s government—in part because of its concern that responding too harshly might create a backlash among the Tuaregs and in part because of its corruption and ineptitude—was not adequately supporting their resistance to the rebels. On March 22, U.S.-trained Army Captain Amadou Sanogo and other officers staged a coup and called for U.S. intervention along the lines of Afghanistan and the “war on terror.”

Sanogo’s training in the United States is just one small part of a decade of growing U.S. military involvement with allied armies in the Sahel, increasing the militarization of this impoverished region and the influence of armed forces relative to civilian leaders. Gregory Mann, writing in Foreign Policy, notes how “a decade of American investment in special forces training, co-operation between Sahalien armies and the United States and counter-terrorism programs of all sorts run by both the State Department and the Pentagon has, at best, failed to prevent a new disaster in the desert and, at worst, sowed its seeds.”

With supporters of the ousted democratic government protesting in the capital and the army divided by the coup, Tuareg rebels took advantage of the chaos in the south and quickly consolidated their hold on the northern part of the country, declaring an independent state.

Then, with the Malian army routed and Tuareg forces stretched thin, radical Islamist groups—also flushed with new arms resulting from the Libya war—seized most of the towns and cities in the north. These extremists also overran additional U.S.-supplied Malian army posts, seizing 87 Land Cruisers, satellite phones, navigation aids, and other equipment provided by the American taxpayer.

Already, the Western intervention in Mali has prompted a retaliatory attack on a BP natural gas facility in neighboring Algeria, resulting in the deaths of 38 foreign hostages. The blowback could just be beginning.

The savage repression perpetrated by Mali’s Islamists, along with the potential threat from an Al Qaeda-affiliated regime, loss of access to the region’s resource wealth, and indications that the Islamists were moving south prompted direct French military intervention in January. Under such dire circumstances, even many people normally critical of Western neocolonialism argue that such military intervention may have been the least bad option. However, given that it was Western intervention and militarization of the region that largely created this mess in the first place, it inevitably raises the question as to whether it will actually end up making matters worse.

Pakistan’s Dictatorships and the United States

In his 2005 inaugural address, President George W. Bush declared that the United States would support democratic movements around the world and work to end tyranny. Furthermore, he pledged to those struggling for freedom that the United States would “not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors.” Despite these promises, the Bush administration—with the apparent acquiescence of the Democratic-controlled Congress—has instead decided to continue U.S. support for the dictatorship of General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s president.

On November 3, the U.S.-backed chief of the Pakistani Army, fearing an imminent ruling by the Supreme Court which could have invalidated his hold on power, declared a state of emergency. He immediately suspended the constitution, shut down all television stations not controlled by the government, ordered the arrests of thousands of political opponents and pro-democracy activists, fired judges not supportive of his crackdown, jammed mobile phone networks, and ordered attacks on peaceful demonstrators. Leading Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir reported that the U.S. Embassy had given a green light to the coup in large part due to its opposition to the chief justice of the Pakistani Supreme Court Iftikhar Chaudhry, who had issued key rulings challenging the government’s policies on political prisoners, women’s rights, and the privatization of public enterprises. Musharraf’s efforts to sack the chief justice six months ago resulted in months of protests which led to his reinstatement just a few weeks before this latest crackdown.

No Impact

Within hours of the martial law declaration, a Pentagon spokesman tried to reassure the regime that “the declaration does not impact on our military support.” This reiteration of support comes despite the fact that the U.S.-armed police and military, instead of concentrating on suppressing extremists waging a violent jihad along the Afghan border as promised, are instead suppressing judges, lawyers, journalists, and other members of the educated urban middle class struggling nonviolently for the restoration of democracy. Indeed, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte argued before a recent congressional hearing that continued support for Pakistan’s authoritarian regime is “vital to our interests,” that it is “contributing heavily to the war on terror,” and that it remains “an indispensable ally.”

Musharraf originally seized power in October 1999 following an effort by the democratically elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to dismiss him from his position as army chief. Sharif has been exiled by Musharraf ever since; an attempt by the former prime minister to return in September was aborted at the airport and he was immediately deported.

Despite its unconstitutionality and its repression, the United States has sent over $10 billion in military and police aid to Pakistan over the past six years to prop up Musharraf’s regime. And, in 2005, Pakistan became one of only a handful of states to be formally designated as a “major non-NATO ally” of the United States. During his visit last year to Pakistan, Bush praised Musharraf’s commitment to democracy just hours after Pakistani police beat and arrested scores of opposition leaders and anti-Bush protesters.

Indeed, despite his well-documented human rights abuses, the Pakistani general has been repeatedly praised by America’s political, academic, and media elites. Bush has commended Musharraf’s “courage and vision” while Negroponte told the recent House panel that the dictator was “a committed individual working very hard in the service of his country.” Similarly, Columbia University president Lee Bollinger—who called Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a “cruel and petty dictator” in his introduction of the Iranian president—introduced Musharraf at an earlier forum by expressing his “great gratitude and excitement” of hosting “a leader of his stature,” praising the Pakistani general’s “remarkable” contributions to his country’s economic development and the “international fight against terror.”

Support for Extremists

The Bush administration and its supporters claim that the United States must continue its backing of the Pakistani dictatorship because of its role in suppressing Islamist extremists. The reality, however, is far different. For its first two years in power, Musharraf was a major supporter of the Taliban regime, making Pakistan one of only three countries in the world that recognized that totalitarian government, despite the Taliban providing refuge for Osama bin Laden and others in the al-Qaida network. As correctly noted by the 9/11 Commission in its final report, “On terrorism, Pakistan helped nurture the Taliban” and that “Many in the government have sympathized with or provided support to the extremists.”

Throughout his eight years in power, Musharraf has suppressed the established secular political parties while allowing for the development of Islamic political groups that show little regard for individual freedom. Despite claims that they had been shut down, madrassas run by Islamist extremists still operate openly. Taliban-allied groups effectively run large swathes of territory in the western provinces and the regions bordering Afghanistan are more controlled by pro-Taliban extremists than ever. In a press conference during a recent visit to Washington by Afghan president Hamid Karzai, in which Bush tried to blame Iran for the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Karzai corrected him by noting that Iran had actually been quite supportive of his government’s efforts and it was actually Pakistan that was backing the Taliban.

Former Kandahar-based NPR correspondent Sarah Chayes noted in her recently-released book The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban that Pakistan has continued its decades-long policy of using religious extremists to exert its influence in Afghanistan. In return for providing limited cooperation against al-Qaida, the United States is willing to ignore Pakistani backing of Taliban and Hizbi-Islami militants as they wreak havoc on the people of that war-ravaged country. Chayes also noted how Pakistani intelligence, through the assassination of moderate Afghan political leaders and other acts of intimidation, has effective veto power over key decisions of the democratically-elected Afghan government, and without any apparent objections from Washington.

Support for Previous Dictators

For decades, the United States has backed the military dictators who have ruled Pakistan. Whether in the name of containing Communism or fighting terrorism, the well-being of the people of the sixth most populated country in the world has been of little concern to Washington policy makers of both parties.

During the Nixon administration, the United States served as the major foreign backer of General Yahya Khan, who declared martial law in 1969. In response to electoral victories by the Bengali-based Awami league in 1971, he began mass arrests of dissidents following a general strike.

As army units began revolting in response to the repression, General Khan cracked down with a brutality that Archer Blood, the U.S. consul in Dhaka, referred to as “genocide.” In one of the strongest-worded dissents ever written by U.S. Foreign Service officers, Blood and 29 others declared “Our government has failed to denounce the suppression of democracy. Our government has failed to denounce atrocities. Our government has failed to take forceful measures to protect its citizens while at the same time bending over backwards to placate the [Pakistani] government and to lessen any deservedly negative international public relations impact against them. Our government has evidenced what many will consider moral bankrupt.” Despite these protests, the Nixon administration continued its support for the repression, which took hundreds of thousands of lives, before Congress—in response to public outcry—suspended aid.

Khan was forced from power soon thereafter, leading to a democratic opening until Zia-ul-Haq seized power in 1977, declaring martial law and executing the elected prime minister he had overthrown. Imposing a rigid and reactionary version of Islamic law, Zia-ul-Haq systematically dismantled many of the country’s civil society institutions. U.S. aid to his regime increased dramatically after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979 and the CIA began collaborating with Pakistan’s notorious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to arm the Afghan resistance, sending the bulk of the aid to the most hard-line Islamist elements, particularly the extremist Hezbi-Islami faction, despite its propensity to fight the more moderate Afghan resistance groups as much as it did the Soviets.

In the summer of 1983, massive and largely nonviolent demonstrations in Sindh and elsewhere in Pakistan by the pro-democracy movement were crushed without apparent objections from Washington. Pro-democracy agitation resumed later that decade to again be met by severe repression. The dictatorship did not end, however, until Zia-ul-Haq—along with U.S. Ambassador Arnold Raphel, top Pakistani military commanders, and other key supporters of the regime—were killed in a mysterious air crash in August 1988. President Ronald Reagan expressed his “profound grief” at Zia’s death, eulogizing the dictator as “a statesman of world stature” and praising his “dedication to regional peace and reconstruction.”

Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons

Beginning in the late 1970s, as the extent of Pakistan’s nuclear program became known, the international community began expressing concerns over the possibility of politically unstable Pakistan developing nuclear weapons. Throughout the 1980s, however, the Reagan and the George H. W. Bush administrations formally denied that Pakistan was engaging in nuclear weapons development despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. In addition, the United States continued supplying Pakistan with F-16 aircraft even as nuclear analysts concluded that Pakistan would likely use these fighter planes as its primary delivery system for its nuclear arsenal. To publicly acknowledge what virtually every authority on nuclear proliferation knew about Pakistan’s nuclear capability would force the United States to cut off aid to Pakistan, as required by U.S. laws designed to enforce the non-proliferation regime. The annual U.S. certification of Pakistan’s supposed non-nuclear status was halted only in 1990, when the Soviet-backed Afghan regime was finally collapsing.

However, George H.W. Bush’s administration insisted that the cut-off of aid did not include military sales, so the transfer of spare parts for the nuclear-capable F-16s aircraft to Pakistan continued. President Bill Clinton finally imposed sanctions against the regime when Pakistan engaged in a series of nuclear weapons tests in 1998, but the sanctions as well as restrictions regarding military aid to new nuclear states were repealed by Congress and the Bush administration three years later.

UN Resolutions

The U.S. government has blocked the United Nations from imposing sanctions or other means to enforce UN Security Council resolution 1172, passed unanimously in 1998, which calls on Pakistan to dismantle its nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. (This contrasts with the Bush administration’s partially successful efforts to impose tough international sanctions against Iran for violating UN Security Council resolution 1696 calling for restrictions on its nuclear program, even though the Islamic Republic is still many years from weapons capability and is therefore much less of a threat to international peace and security than is Pakistan.)

Indeed, the United States has released the previously-suspended sale of sophisticated nuclear-capable F-16 fighter jets to that country. A Bush administration official claimed that the U.S. fighter-bombers “are vital to Pakistan’s security as President Musharraf prosecutes the war on terror” despite the fact that these jets were originally ordered 15 years earlier, long before the U.S.-led “war on terror” began. They were suspended by the administration of the president’s father out of concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear program and the Pakistani military’s ties with Islamic terrorist groups, both of which are of even greater concern today.

Rogue States

One of the most disturbing aspects of U.S. support for the Pakistani regime is that Pakistan has been sharing its nuclear materials and know-how with North Korea and other so-called “rogue states.” The Bush administration chose to essentially ignore what journalist Robert Scheer has referred to as “the most extravagantly irresponsible nuclear arms bazaar the world has ever seen” and to instead blame others. For example, even though it was actually Pakistanis who passed on nuclear materials to Libya, the Bush administration instead told U.S. allies that North Korea was responsible, thereby sabotaging negotiations which many had hoped could end North Korea’s nuclear program and resolve that festering crisis. Similarly, though it was Pakistan which provided Iran with nuclear centrifuges, the Bush administration is now citing Iran’s possession of such materials as justification for a possible U.S. military attack against that country.

The Bush administration, despite evidence to the contrary, claims that the Pakistani government was not responsible for exporting such dangerous materials, but that these serious breaches of security were solely the responsibility of a single rogue nuclear scientist named Abdul Qadeer Khan. Unfortunately, the Pakistani military regime has not allowed U.S. intelligence access to Khan, the former head of Pakistan’s nuclear program, whom the 9/11 Commission noted “was leading the most dangerous nuclear smuggling ring ever disclosed.” Recently pardoned by Musharraf, he now lives freely in Pakistan while Pakistani anti-nuclear activists have been exiled or jailed.


Despite President Bush’s claim that Islamist extremists attack American because they “hate our freedom,” the reality is that most people in Pakistan and other Islamic countries don’t have anything against our freedom. They do, however, recognize that the United States shares responsibility for their repression through its unconditional support of the dictatorship that denies them their own freedom. And, without the opportunity to press for changes through the political system, some turn to violence and extremism.

The United States has supported repressive regimes in the Islamic world and beyond for years with little concern over the consequences. On September 11, 2001, however, citizens from the U.S.-backed dictatorships of Saudi Arabia and Egypt hijacked four airliners, resulting in the deaths of thousands of Americans. A public opinion poll in Pakistan this past August showed that Osama bin Laden has a higher approval rating than either General Musharraf or President Bush. Extremist Islamist parties would not come close to winning a free election in Pakistan today, but in denying Pakistan’s pro-Western democratic opposition a chance to compete and in jailing its leaders, Musharraf and his American supporters may be creating the conditions that could eventually lead to the takeover of this nuclear-armed country by dangerous extremists.

As President John F. Kennedy observed, “Those who make peaceful evolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

The American Public

In 1971, during the height of the massacres of Bengalis by the Pakistani army, a small group of American Quakers organized a flotilla of canoes in Baltimore Harbor to block a Pakistani freighter from docking where it was to be loaded with American arms and munitions while other protesters on shore blocked the train which carried the weaponry. Though most of them were arrested and the weapons were eventually loaded, the publicity from the event alerted the American public of the largely clandestine U.S. military support for the Pakistani regime.

When protestors met another Pakistani freighter attempting to pick up weapons in Philadelphia shortly thereafter, dockworkers refused to load the ship, preferring to not get paid that day rather than to work for what their local union leader referred to as “blood money.” Within weeks, in the face of public outcry against U.S. support for the genocidal Pakistani regime, Congress cut off military aid, a testament to the power of nonviolent direct action.

Given the unwillingness of both the Republican administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress to stop U.S. military support for the current Pakistani dictatorship, it may be time once again for concerned citizens to engage in similar nonviolent actions to end U.S. support for the oppression. For those at risk as a result of U.S. policy are no longer just those currently oppressed by the Pakistani regime. Some day, as a result of a possible blowback from this policy, it could be Americans as well.