Alone in the Desert

How Camus explains France's troubling intervention in Mali.

In 1957, the French-Algerian philosopher and journalist Albert Camus published a short story called "The Guest." The tale is situated in the midst of the Algerian war of independence -- a war that reduced Camus, who had long sought to square the circle of France's tortured presence in Algeria, to a pained silence. In a dozen and a half tersely written pages, Camus sets the stage not just for the tragedy unfolding then in Algeria, but also the predicament France faces today in Mali. In both cases, and for similar reasons, there are no easy answers, no obvious allies, and no clear exits.

"The Guest" takes place in Algeria's harsh interior, where a French-Algerian, or pied noir, named Daru is given responsibility for an Arab prisoner who stands accused of murder. As night descends, the two men exchange barely a dozen words. When Daru asks the prisoner whether he is sorry to have killed a man, the Arab does not answer. Equally inadequate is Daru's answer to the Arab's question about what will happen to him next: "I don't know," he says twice.

Conflicted about what he should do with the prisoner, Daru leads him to the edge of the plateau the following morning. Go east, he says, and you will reach the town of Tinguit, where the police are waiting; go south and "you'll find pastures and the first nomads. They will welcome you and give you shelter." He then watches in despair as the Arab sets off in the direction of Tinguit. Daru's despair only deepens when he returns to the classroom where he works and finds a message scrawled on the blackboard: "You turned in our brother. You will pay."

South of Daru's plateau in Algeria lies Adrar des Ifoghas, the lunar redoubt in northern Mali where the French military has now pushed the Islamist militants who, just two months ago, were poised to take the Malian capital, Bamako. Like Daru, who couldn't help but play the role of gendarme, it appears that France has inherited responsibility for securing Mali -- a development that is more than a little ironic. After all, it was only last October that French President François Hollande declared the era of Françafrique dead: "There is France, and there is Africa," he explained matter-of-factly during a state visit to Senegal.

Hollande's insistence that France and Africa have begun a new phase as equals and that France "has no other goal than to stop terrorism" seems, in part, borne out by events. The African Union, hardly a front for French neocolonialism, encouraged and applauded France's intervention. As Thomas Boni Yayi, the African Union's outgoing chairman confessed, the offensive was something "we should have done a long time ago to defend a member country." Moreover, the popular explosions of joy and relief in Bamako and some of Mali's northern cities liberated by the French are neither feigned nor fickle.

In addition, Hollande has to his credit made haste slowly in Mali. Vincent Jauvert, a defense writer for Le Nouvel Observateur, recently revealed a remarkable exchange of letters from January between Mali's interim president, Dioncounda Traoré, and Hollande. When Traoré sent a dramatic appeal for Hollande to send the French cavalry, the Élysée balked at the letter's wording. Traoré's open-ended request for "military intervention" smacked of the earlier Françafrique era. And so, like a lycée student told to revise his assignment, Traoré was asked to send a second letter in which he instead asked for more limited "air support."

But this, in turn, revealed France's predicament. Just days after Traoré sent the corrected letter, Hollande and his military advisors reached the conclusion that airstrikes alone were inadequate to stop the jihadi advance. As a result, by sending 4,000 troops to Mali, France found itself in the awkward position of violating the very letter it had asked Traoré to write. This underscored, of course, the volatility of events that Paris could not anticipate, much less fully master. But it also revealed the fickle nature of alliances in Mali -- and the startling fact that, like Camus's Daru, France is very much alone.

France's current alignment with the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) is fraught with complications, not least because the Arab-Berber nomads were allied with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb less than six months ago. But for the moment at least, the success of France's campaign in the northern reaches of the Malian desert remains utterly dependent on Tuareg cooperation. More troublingly still, the tribesmen insist on serving as the sole interlocutor for French forces in the liberated north, frustrating France's efforts to hand responsibility of the operation over to government forces. (Tellingly, the MNLA refuses to negotiate or coordinate with the Malian army, but insists on speaking exclusively with the French.)

Similar doubts hover over the willingness of Traoré's transitional government to negotiate with the MNLA or, for that matter, negotiate the terms for new elections. While the world's attention focuses on the north, one Western diplomat noted sourly, "The problem is that very little is happening in Bamako." Almost nothing has been done to set the terms or dates for new elections, despite the repeated appeals of several political parties and associations in Bamako. According to Le Nouvel Observateur, the government seems to have "returned to the same weightless state" it was in prior to the crisis.

Fears over the government's fecklessness also bleed into the public's perception of its capacity to protect citizens. The initial euphoria in northern Mali is increasingly flecked with doubt. A journalist for Jeune Afrique reported in late February from the strategic northern city of Gao that "the explosions of joy that greeted the French have since been replaced by questions, doubts, and now fears." The pitched battles in late February between the French army and an al Qaeda affiliate that calls itself the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, which led to the destruction of the town's central market, has only deepened these fears. As a local teacher noted, "The jihadists are not far, and they haven't had their last word."

Neither have those skeptics who doubt the stated motivations for France's intervention. For these observers, Françafrique's death -- which, they note, rhymes with "France-à-fric," or "Cash to France" -- is premature. Although it remains one of the globe's poorest countries, Mali is rich in minerals. In addition to its gold and uranium reserves, Mali looks poised to become the continent's next Algeria, if only in terms of crude oil reserves.

Although energy specialists warn that there are few concrete indications of such holdings below the sands of northern Mali, other commentators believe the mere potential of their existence, particularly in the Taoudeni basin, drives France's geopolitical calculations. As Malian scholar Manthia Diawara, a reluctant supporter of France's military intervention, recently wrote in the French online journal Mediapart, France is not only motivated by its post-colonial responsibilities, but also has in mind "the petroleum and other minerals that may be below the Malian desert. One could even say that it is 'business as usual' in Paris, where Françafrique always trumped other concerns."

In late February, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced that military forces will begin their withdrawal from Mali in March. The announcement was widely interpreted as a sign of the government's determination to avoid enlisement (quagmire) in Mali. To be sure, France quite literally cannot afford such a predicament: The tab for the intervention has grown from 70 million to 100 million euros since early February. This is a significant sum for a country whose economy is at a standstill and whose government has just announced it will exceed the 3 percent deficit limit required by the European Union and admits -- campaign promises aside -- that it will not bring down the level of unemployment. Just last week, however, French officials told the Associated Press that troops would likely remain in Mali until July.

French voters will not tolerate an open-ended engagement, much less an effort at nation-building in Bamako, while their own nation seems to be unraveling. Leaders of the opposition Union for a Popular Movement are already wheeling above the Élysée, waiting for their moment. One leading member, Pierre Lellouche, now describes Mali as "the new Afghanistan," while Henri de Raincourt, who was President Nicolas Sarkozy's minister in charge of relations with Francophone Africa, slammed Hollande's "profound ignorance of Africa."

For the moment, Hollande is holding fast. Yet one wonders whether he will eventually recognize himself in the concluding lines of Camus's story. The last line -- "In this vast country he had loved so much, he was alone" -- might well serve as the coda to France's engagement in Mali. The French title to the story, "L'Hôte," can be translated as either "The Guest" or "The Host." This etymological ambiguity reflects the complex reality France confronts in its former colony. Once the imperial host in this part of the world, France is now expected to assume the role of guest. But whose guest and for how long? As Daru told his guest: "I don't know."



Missing in Action

Extremists are destroying the fabric of Pakistani society. Where is the government?

On the evening of March 3, as Shiite worshipers filed out of mosques in Karachi's Abbas Town, twin explosions devastated their neighborhood -- and struck another blow against the country's social fabric. One of the giant blasts sheared the fronts of two four-story buildings. "It's like doomsday to me," said one witness. "I saw children lying in pools of their own blood and women running around shouting for their children and loved ones." Sixty-five people were killed -- including women, children, and as many as 18 Sunnis -- and over 100 were injured.

So far, no group has claimed responsibility for the attack. But Lashkar e Jhangvi (LeJ), an anti-Shiite terrorist group with links to both al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban, has boasted of its role in a series of horrific bombings in the city of Quetta earlier this year, which killed over 220 people in total and explicitly targeted Hazaras, a small ethnic group of Shia Muslims. Many suspect that LeJ is also behind the Karachi attack.

Regardless, here is the good news: There are very few takers in Pakistan for the kind of permissive, undiscriminating anti-Shia violence taking shape in the country. In fact, there seems to be an unprecedented degree of revulsion at these attacks.

"Otherizing" Shia is not impossible, but it is certainly among the more complex tasks that Pakistan's radical Sunni terrorists have attempted. The Shia are not considered heretics by mainstream Sunnis, nor are they powerless or sprinkled across only some parts of the country. Estimates of the size of the Shia population in Pakistan range from 25 million to as many as 40 million -- even in a country whose population is approaching 200 million, this is no small number. Moreover, Shia traditions are part of the core of Pakistani culture, and Shia icons, including the country's founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, are not easy to shun -- even among radicalized petro-emigrants returning home after years of anti-Shia indoctrination in Saudi Arabia.

In the wake of this string of attacks, a wide spectrum of Pakistani political, economic, and religious groups has been vocal in its expression of sympathy for Shiites. Even the right-wing Jamaat e Islami and the more hardcore Jamiat e Ulema e Islam have issued occasional condemnations of the attacks.

The Pakistani mainstream is even more emphatic in its condemnations and expressions of solidarity. Immediately following the attack in Karachi, the chief minister of Sindh province, where the city is located, announced a day of mourning. Unions quickly joined in: The Transporters' Association announced all public transport would be suspended and the Traders and Merchants' Union announced all shops would be closed. One of the opposition parties' provincial wings also announced a day of mourning.

This degree of compassion is admirable. But all Pakistan seems to be capable of doing lately is announcing days of mourning, expressing condemnation, and occasionally mobilizing a protest -- often joined by members of the government, including senior members of the cabinet. If this is the only response to the killing of innocent people because of their religion, it probably makes sense for the killers to carry on with the carnage. And that's exactly what has been happening.

This neutered response is largely par for the course in Pakistan. Not counting its operations against various al Qaeda terrorists in the northwest tribal areas since 2004, the major exception to Pakistan's meekness in the face of violent extremists was the 2009 operation to clear the Swat Valley of Taliban-aligned terrorists. And that only happened because the Swat Taliban had begun to implement their cartoonish brand of governance. When a video of a girl being whipped went viral, Pakistan reached for the medicine -- a swift and vicious military operation. The national response was well-organized and well-orchestrated. The resulting military operation rid the Swat Valley of those particular militants, though many questions continue to linger about the area's future.

The worrying question now is whether Pakistan's leaders -- be it the politicians or the generals in charge of the army and the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, the country's most powerful spy agency -- are waiting for Karachi to resemble Swat in the spring of 2009 before acting decisively. Worse still is the other question: How far will the Lashkar e Jhangvi and its anti-Shia allies be allowed to go before the Pakistani mainstream says "enough"?

For Pakistanis of all sects and ethnicities, of all political persuasions, these are bone-chilling questions. And nobody can give an answer, for one simple reason: More than at any recent time, Pakistan feels leaderless.

There are some bright spots in the current galaxy of politicians, judges, and generals that run Pakistan. Many among them have done some remarkable things, from President Asif Ali Zardari's transformation of his country's relationships with Afghanistan, India and Iran, to Army chief Ashfaq Pervez Kayani's steadfast refusal to be explicitly drawn into politics, and from opposition leader Mian Nawaz Sharif's consistent support for democracy, to the chief justice's repeated attempts to plug failures in governance through judicial activism, to cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan's exceptional ability to energize and inspire young Pakistanis. But despite these important achievements, Pakistan reels under the stress of a series of interconnected failures -- perhaps none as agonizing as the newfound brazenness of anti-Shia terrorists.

Khan may have gone furthest in condemning the Lashkar e Jhangvi's campaign of anti-Shia violence, but no one seems to have any plan on how to stop it. On the contrary, all kinds of speculation exists about why the terror group enjoys impunity. At this point, Pakistanis only have theories: The military and the intelligence services continue to be viewed suspiciously because of their one-time association with sectarian groups. More recently, allegations have surfaced of an electoral alliance between the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), the political epicenter of anti-Shia rhetoric, and Nawaz Sharif's PML-N, the party with the strongest poll numbers going into the 2013 elections. There have also been allegations that the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party is close to the ASWJ.

Could the country's political parties be treating violent extremists with kid gloves in the hopes of gaining an edge at the ballot box? It is a question that shouldn't require asking in a country that has lost as many as 40,000 people in violent conflict with terrorists.

Meanwhile, the attacks continue. At the scene of the March 3 bombing in Abbas Town, while rescue ambulances provided by charities and volunteer rescue crews were toiling at the site, news reports suggested that police and law enforcement agencies took as many as four hours to arrive. As the violence in Karachi increases and sectarian groups begin tit-for-tat reprisals, Pakistanis have every right to ask why their government appears missing in action.

The sad truth is that the Pakistani state is increasingly incapable of conducting rudimentary tasks of governance. Pakistan is home to 25 million children between five and 16 years old who are out of school. It is a nuclear power that cannot provide uninterrupted electricity to its manufacturing base, or its major cities.

This isn't rocket science. Terrorists are often stupid, but they are not blind: Pakistan offers a dazzling array of targets because Pakistan's leaders are AWOL. And ordinary Pakistanis have learnt to trust their instincts -- the state will fail to protect them.

For years, angry Pakistani activists have chided their countrymen for a failure to condemn the latest outrage. The pervasiveness of the media, and the fact that Pakistani Shiites are as mainstream as can be, has helped solve this particular problem -- everyone now condemns these atrocities. But these condemnations ring hollow because killers of all hues continue to enjoy both freedom and impunity.

In a functional and self-respecting society, condemnations and days of mourning constitute only the first step in responding to outrages that soak the streets in the blood of innocents. The actual response must end the freedom of killers and include an unambiguous statement of intent to eliminate the threat to innocent people.

In Pakistan, this kind of response has yet to appear on the horizon. When it does, Pakistan will be out of the woods. Until it does, Pakistan will remain locked in a cycle of tragic failure -- failure that is suffocating nearly 200 million people, and strangling some to their last breath.