As Western countries rush into Africa's troubled Sahel region, are we once again forgetting history?
For sheer sexiness, few news monikers can compete with the al Qaeda label.
This, in a word, is how one of the world's most remote and traditionally obscure regions, Africa's arid and largely empty Sahel, has suddenly come to be treated as a zone of great strategic importance in the wake of the recent offensive by a hodgepodge of armed groups, including one called al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, that has threatened the survival of the Malian state and sent violent ripples throughout the neighboring area.
France has responded with alacrity and seeming confusion to the Mali crisis, sending in an intervention force that at first seemed destined to be very small and then immediately ramping up the numbers into the thousands, all while scurrying to enlist regional partners in places like Nigeria, Chad, and Niger.
Paris has exhibited great difficulty in conveying a clear aim or speaking with one voice, saying contradictory things in rapid succession -- promising that this will be a limited intervention quickly handed over to the Africans, while vowing to do whatever is required to stamp out terrorist movements in Mali and restore legitimate government.
To understand what is really going on in Mali and in the broader Sahel today, though, it is vital to think through decades of colonial and independent history in the region. And when one does, it becomes clear that, apart from the trendiness of al Qaeda, a relative newcomer as factors go, what is most striking is the remarkable continuity of this region's crises.
One of my first big stories as a foreign correspondent came in 1983 when freelancing in West Africa for the Washington Post. I made a river crossing into Chad from Cameroon aboard a dugout pirogue in order to cover a flare up in fighting between France and Libyan-backed insurgents there who threatened to topple the government of the day.
Less than 24 hours and a helicopter ride to the front later, I observed from a sandy trench as French jets pounded rebel positions in the desert. Their aim was to stop the insurgents' advance toward the capital, much as it was in Mali last week.
The lifelong geopolitical dream of the Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi took many guises, but his goal, at bottom, was always to opportunistically project power southward, across the Sahara and far and wide into the Sahel, a region that for these purposes extends from Sudan to Senegal.
Already in the early 1970s -- long before anyone had heard of al Qaeda -- Qaddafi had formed an Islamic legion of Sahelian recruits. Although the Libyan leader's rule was essentially secular at home, he was an opportunist abroad, using Islam and his own peculiar brew of pan-Arabism as both intoxicant and glue for rebellions aimed at challenging the political order left in place by European colonialism. The Libyan leader's bag of tricks involved annexation (Chad), merger (Sudan) and most grandiosely, pan-African union.
Qaddafi's colorful behavior and megalomania made it easy to overlook the extent to which the troubles he helped foment were a carryover from much older struggles. In the late 19th century, France and Britain vied mightily for control over the Sahel, the eastern extremity of which (today's South Sudan) was a cornerstone of their respective imperial schemes.
Paris, already enjoying possession of North Africa, dreamed of ruling over the Sahel, from the Atlantic coast in Senegal all the way to White Nile, in Sudan. This would have permitted utter French domination, both east-west and north-south, of trade between Europe, the Maghreb, and the population and resources centers of West Africa.
If anything, Britain's dream was even more ambitious. It was based on Cecil Rhodes's scheme to build a continuous rail network -- a virtual spine traveling the length of the continent and linking Cape Town and all of southern Africa's vast mineral wealth to Cairo, via people- and produce-rich East Africa.
None of these grand designs considered, however, the existence of fiercely independent-minded peoples, and especially Muslims with well organized societies and sophisticated martial traditions throughout the contested Sahelian region.
Both Britain and France faced some of the stiffest tests of their imperial era here. For London, this came in campaigns to subdue Sudan, and for Paris it involved Samori Ture, the founder of an amorphous Islamic state, centered not far from the region of today's fighting in Mali, that resisted conquest through most of the 1880s.
Pundits who bang on about the events in Mali on television today speculate glibly about the possible linkup of militant Islamic movements in places like Mauritania, Mali, Algeria, and northern Nigeria, potentially constituting a vast sea of Muslim radicalism and hostility to the West. They would do better to understand that such currents are inherent to the politics and culture of this region and are in no way a recent import. Rejection of borders and of the European drawn states is as old as the borders themselves, and Islam has always played a central role in this, as intellectual base, religious justification and rallying catalyst. These currents have been given added force and coherence by the age-old movement of peoples and ideas via pastoralism, overland pilgrimage to Mecca and the existence of large, sprawling and aggrieved transnational ethnic groups -- like the Tuareg, Hausa, and Fulani, to name three -- whose interests were never considered by the imperial mapmakers.
Most of those who write on today's crisis seem to ignore that the Tuareg, who are a key to events in Mali, have been sporadically fighting for decades against the country of that name we see on the map. During a visit I made to Timbuktu in the 1990s, Tuareg rebels fired mortars into the town that landed within meters of my hotel with no prior warning, scrambling tourists and creating a state of emergency.
As for other rebel groups in the region, their general pattern has been to raise tensions like this, forcing the government, in effect, to sue for peace by offering money, talks about greater autonomy, or other concessions. What was new this time had less to do with the presence in the equation of an al Qaeda spinoff than with the fact that there has been no government worthy of the name in the capital, Bamako, since a military coup overthrew the elected president last March.
Before we start breaking out hammers in search of nails, this crisis should serve as a powerful reminder of the necessity of much stronger preventive diplomacy in Africa in general, a thread that runs through major crises in Rwanda, the Congo and most recently Côte d'Ivoire. When I spent time in Mali in the summer of 2011, Western diplomats seemed scantily informed and almost blasé about the situation there; this at a time when the political cognoscenti was already warning of an advanced state of rot that involved mounting corruption, drug trafficking, and high-level dawdling over rising Islamic militancy.
However, even the best diplomacy, which we clearly haven't had in Africa, won't change the fact that the Sahel is in for a period of extended unrest and uncertainty. Its vastness contains some of the most sparsely inhabited real estate anywhere, peppered here and there by far-flung population centers with little economic viability or connection to the outside world. Places like these are easy to attack and hard to hold, and the militants' game of blackmail for greater resources is extremely tempting.
Whatever the political or religious labels of the militants, however, the biggest driver of turmoil in this region in the future will be population. The peoples of the arid Sahel have some of the highest birth rates in the world, and there is little prospect that they will be able to accommodate the quadrupling or more of their populations, as projected by the U.N., before century's end. Under such scenarios, Mali will go from 16 million or so today to 75 million people. Even poorer Niger, next door, will surge from today's similar population base to 125 million.
Explosions like these will make a mockery of the political map of Africa that is familiar today, as major ethnic clusters outstrip the claims of the present-day states to govern them. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb surely must be dealt with now, but over time it will be the least of our worries.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images