On to Timbuktu

According to a report I saw this morning, French forces in Mali have seized an airport outside Gao, one of the provincial capitals turned Islamist stronghold.1 In response to this and in reaction to a conversation with someone with whom I was discussing Mali last night who did not know the backdrop, I have decided to give a rundown of the conflict.

Mali was a French colony until 1960 (which is part of the reason that France got involved militarily).2 Mali was governed by a dictator until a military coup established a democratic republic in 1991. There was a peaceful transfer of power through the first several elections, but this stability belied tensions in Northern Mali between ethnic groups, particularly against the ethnic Tuareg, who compose ten percent of the Malian population. In 2011 those tensions led to a rebellion, which led to a military coup by soldiers unhappy with how the government was handling the rebellion. The man who led the coup was Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo, the beneficiary of US military aid to Mali in that he had come to the United States for military training on several occasions over a ten year period. The soldiers, nominally led by Sanogo, were frustrated with corruption in the government and had decided to protest. When they arrived at the presidential palace to protest to President Toure, they found it deserted. Only later that day did the soldiers decide to execute their coup and begin looting. Sanogo eventually agreed to return power to the elected government, but also obstructed that return as people refused to consider him a former head of state. At the same time, the Ansar Dine, a radical Islamist group with ties to Al Qaeda seized control of the North. In June of 2012 they captured the UNESCO World Heritage Site (and regional centre) Timbuktu.

In the month after taking Timbuktu, the Ansar Dine first shut down the tourist industry there and then began to destroy the mausoleums, shrines, and mosques, which they consider to be idol worship. The destruction prompted outrage from archeologists and historians, and a plea from the UNESCO director for international pressure to stop radical islamists from destroying world cultures (she wrote that this was just the latest incident). Then the Islamists banned the traditional drumming in Northern Mali. Stories began to leak out about the complete stagnation of Northern Mali, including grisly punishments, economic lethargy, and opposition to Ansar Dine, often led by relatively secular men and women. Ag Ghali, the Ansar Dine leader, was a leading Tuareg separatist (albeit one who drank and smoked and was considered unreliable) who was pushed out by the Tuareg after which returned as the leader of the fundamentalist Islamist group in favor of Sharia, not Tuareg nationalism, and he funded their cause through banditry, kidnapping, and drug trafficking.

As early as November 2012, the UN, goaded on by France, had put into place a plan that called for an African force of around 3,000 troops to be deployed in Mali along with a small number of French and American specialists and special forces. The plan also called for negotiations with Ansar Dine in an attempt to leverage them away from al Qaeda.

The Ansar Dine preempted the UN military action in early January by launching an offensive into the south, which led France to move forces from their current UN mission in the Ivory Coast into Mali, launched air strikes, and were followed by troops from African nations. While the UN had mandated a mission, the immediate impetus for French action seems to be the 8,000 French citizens in Bamako and French economic interests there. As of this morning, the Ansar Dine have been driven from Timbuktu, but residents there are without power or water. More frightening, though, are the reports that many ethnic Tuaregs are currently in hiding as Malian soldiers have been conducting summary, extrajudicial executions, and shelling Tuareg camps. The head of the US African Command has also publicly stated that Malian territorial integrity is non-negotiable, indicating that the MNLA (Tuareg separatists) will not be able to realize their dream of a Tuareg state. Despite the concerns about the current offensive, there are many editorials in support of the military action, including this one, by an author who argues that the Ansar Dine jihadists remain part of a large, interconnected–and largely non-Malian–group that seeks to create an Islamic emirate across the continent that must be met by Western military and economic action because previous attempts to curtail it have failed.

For my part, I am fascinated by the French military action.3 I suspect that it was largely warranted and justified– because Mali is a former French colony with many French citizens in the capital, because the UN had already sanctioned action, and because the recognized Malian government appealed for aid.4 I am somewhat concerned that there is too little appreciation for the complexity of Mali (or, as a friend put it yesterday, Africa in general) in that there cannot be a one size fits all solution. There are several different groups–including at least two distinct separatist groups– in Mali, though the Ansar Dine seemed to have aspirations toward conquering the whole country rather than creating a breakaway state. Moreover, as is currently being seen in the Malian actions on the campaign, there historically have been conflicts between the Tuareg people and the government of Mali, not wholly unlike the relationship between the Kurds and the official governments of the countries wherein they live. To demand the territorial integrity of Mali without at least attempting to find a solution to that long-standing problem is naive.

Additionally, the French forces have been successful in Mali to date, but it will be worth seeing whether or not (or against whom) a long term counterinsurgency campaign is necessary. One of the determinants in this case may be whether or not most of the Ansar Dine combatants are Malian–if they are, they may stay relatively local, but otherwise they may abandon Mali for other areas. In either case, the conflict is likely to spread into the surrounding Saharan countries, as has already been seen in with the hostage crisis at the Algerian oil compound. As far as I am aware, the UN mission remains localized to Mali.

I am also waiting to see how extensively the cultural sites of places like Timbuktu have been damaged.

1 Islamist is actually a misnomer, but I will get to that in a moment.
2 All historical and demographic information courtesy of the CIA World Factbook.
3 In part because in college I participated in a political simulation wherein I was the French Defense minister, and in part because I am fascinated at how quickly the Socialist president, Hollande used military force.
4You may, however, be able to debate the legitimacy of that recognition, but that is a different matter.

The new term begins…

As the first week of the new academic semester draws to a close, I find myself with even less spare time than usual. I hope to keep writing here as much as I can (or at least continue to add updates of links I’ve read), but since I have to read about a book a day on top of my normal teaching and course load in order to prepare for my comprehensive exams I do not know how successful I will be.

Assorted Links

  1. Library turns to pole dancing to entice new readers– A library in Scotland is offering a free pole dancing class to lure people into the library. Among other events includes table tennis using books instead of paddles. I don’t know whether to be amused or horrified.
  2. Mali’s army suspected of abuses and unlawful killings– Complicating the French involvement in Mali is the unstable relationship the government has with the Tuareg nomads, with new allegations of abuses and indiscriminate shelling of the camps surfacing.
  3. How the Vatican built a secret empire using Mussolini’s millions– An interesting article, but misleading title. The article traces how the Vatican used offshore tax havens to create lucrative real estate investments in Switzerland, France, and the UK worth more than 500 million pounds. The nest egg for the investment was money paid by Mussolini in return for papal recognition of his fascist government.
  4. A Malian Quagmire?– An op-ed in the Atlantic in defense of military action in Mali. The author cites experts and claims made by the Islamists that indicate that they wish to create an area of influence spanning the Sahara within which Jihad may be fostered. He also provides military and economic reasons why France had to intervene and that there is hope that the French response–combined with aid from African countries–could prevent a prolonged insurgency.
  5. Bowhead Whales see huge population rebound off Alaska’s north slope– From a few weeks back, the whale population is increasing, according to a report at the meeting of the American Geophysical Union. That is good news, of course, but the cool thing is that there is some evidence that a few of the whales might be over 200 years old, after the researcher found a stone harpoon head stuck in a whale. The whaling industry nearly wiped out bowhead whales between 1848 and 1915 using barbed, steel harpoon heads.

Assorted LInks

  1. Naftali Bennett and Israel’s Rightward Shift– An article in the New Yorker that traces a rightward shift in Israel’s political alignment that includes both jettisoning moderate members of Likud and an uptick in membership of far-right parties that are likely to take the third most seats in the upcoming election if they don’t come in second outright. Naftali Bennett is the head of the party profiled; he, and others like him, are campaigning on a platform that opposes the peace process and also opposes the current security measures as being wasteful and inefficient–in a way that conquering greater Israel would not be. Moreover, at least some of the members of this party favor the construction of the third temple, expunging the Israeli democracy, and, quite in contrast to earlier generations of zionists, support a fundamentally religious zionism.
  2. Neolithic Remains Unearthed in Istanbul– While constructing a rail line on the Asian side of the Bosporus (because all manner of nifty things surface during rail construction), remains from a neolithic village have been discovered. Among the preliminary finds, researchers have been able to determine that the inhabitants ate a significant amount of sea food. Byzantine structures have also been found.
  3. France and West Pledge Support After Islamists Start Offensive in Mali– Ansar Dine began a sudden offensive into government held territory and as a result France has pledged to commit more military aid (advisors and supplies have already been in place). It is as of yet unclear, but France might be committing armed forces and there have been efforts to get an African-led military force into Mali. Part of the package, though, is that Mali must recommit to restoring its democratic-republican government in the entire country.
  4. France Claims Gains in Airstrikes Against Mali Islamists– As as follow up to the announcement that France would begin to use force, airstrikes have commenced and French troops from the UN mission in the Ivory Coast have entered the country. Despite hostages held by Ansar Dine, French President Hollande has reiterated that more French support troops are on their way and he is encouraging the UN to put together a West African peacekeeping force.
  5. Sweden Train Crash– A woman obtained keys to a train and crashed into a house. Here is a picture.

The Final Form: Digital Publication

I have been reading Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series since I was in elementary school. I took the first book out from the school/town library (they were in the same building) and distinctly remember being scared at some of the descriptions, but being ten or eleven at the time should provide some excuse. That was six or so years after the first book in the series came out.

The last book in the series came out this week and, of course, I pre-ordered the book. Amazon did not (or could not) ensure the book was shipped the on the release day, let alone have it arrive on the same day. Frustrated, I went to Amazon to see if anyone else experienced a similar issue. They had not, but there were more than a hundred of comments and one-star reviews; one comment said:

“This book is rated one star since it is still a partially unpublished manuscript until it becomes published as an ebook.”

It turns out that, for a variety of reasons (explained here), the e-book release is delayed several months, prompting the above comment.

Once upon a time, a time such as when the first book in the series came out, this sort of complaint would have been unthinkable. Even a few years ago when any book like this would have been typed on a computer, it was unthinkable that the final form of publication would exist on a computer. Now? A large number of people believe that a publication is not complete unless it is available electronically for a popular series. To the best of my knowledge, the same is not true for academic books, although the proliferation of electronic journals indicates that it is moving in that direction, too.

A lot of ink has been spilled and even more pixels filled with discussions of the future print and electronic literacy and while I have my own opinions and preferences, though I do not mean for this to be a bully platform from which I argue one way or the other. I just want to point out the evolution of expectations.

While I wait for my book to arrive, I have plenty of other books demanding to be read. Does anyone have thoughts on this change?

Assorted Links

  1. Paraguay’s Awful History– A story in the Economist about how a war waged by Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay against Paraguay in 1865 is having direct political consequences today. The immediate impetus is that those countries kicked Paraguay out of an economic agreement following the ouster of a leftist president that they interpreted as a coup. The new Paraguayan government then accused them of trying to create a new Triple Alliance–the alliance that waged war against Paraguay, killing up to 60% of the total population and 90% of the male population.
  2. Haredi education is dragging Israel closer to the third world– From Ha’aretz, a story about how Israel will be forced to cease taking international education tests because the numbers of people (learning disabled, special ed, Haredim) do not take educational tests. The largest chunk of those students are Haredim who are not required to learn math or English and thus are not subject to the tests. The author of the article accuses the Israeli government of “financially allowing” the Haredi to operate their own school system and, as a result, of crippling their ability to function within the Israeli economy and Israel’s ability to complete in the world system.
  3. The Frightening Hungarian Crackdown – An article in the New Yorker about a crackdown on leftist artists and intellectuals in Hungary, including (likely) coerced repudiations of statements in opposition to the government.
  4. Project Plans to Pump Oxygen into Baltic Sea– From Spiegel, there is a project currently being tested in a fjord that will artificially pump oxygen into the Baltic Sea. Fertilizer flowing into the sea has caused a rapid growth of algae, which, in turn, has caused de-oxygenation of the sea, suffocating the ecosystem. The hope is that an artificial process can restore that balance, but neither supporters nor opponents actually know what will happen.
  5. Semi Charmed Life: The Twentysomethings are alright– An essay at the New Yorker about the enduring features of being a twenty-something, arguing that despite the changes in the job market, technology, and the nature of society, there is something persistent and resonant about being twentysomething. While that may be of little comfort, it is an engaging essay and sometimes all you can do is laugh.

Assorted Links

  1. Temple and Sacred Vessels from Biblical Times Discovered at Tel Motza– A temple complex from the kingdom of Judah was found outside of Jerusalem, including walls and sacred vessels and pottery figurines have been discovered. This is one of the few sites from the period of the first temple now known to have possessed an independent temple complex, and is even more remarkable for its proximity to Jerusalem. The archaeologists have suggested that this site corresponds to the biblical Mozah, a town in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin bordering on Judea and perhaps supplying grain for Jerusalem (silos were found). The article includes further discussion of assemblages found at the site.
  2. A real look at being a professor in the US-CNBC published a list of least stressful jobs in the US, placing “university professor” at number one. Actual tenured faculty members (let alone adjuncts and graduate students) have not been taking the “honor” well. This is an evaluation of the life of one university professor seeking to debunk the notion that being a university professor is low-stress. I am sure that the other careers on the list have similar objections, but midway through graduate school (i.e. several more years to go without the guarantee of a real job at the end) I am sympathetic to the author of this reaction.
  3. A Pickpocket’s Tale: The Spectacular Thefts of Apollo Robbins– From the New Yorker, the life and career developments of a professional (and legal) pickpocket. The article mostly follows his career, but talks about the technique and recent interest in the neurological science behind pick pocketing and the where people focus their attention.
  4. A Two Year Travelogue From Hell– An article in Spiegel about life and situations in the Syrian countryside during the civil war.