Monday, February 11, 2013

An Italian history lesson for Mali

Today we learn that the city of Gao which was supposed to have been retaken by French and Malian forces is still very much threatened by the insurgents and we have long known that the terrain in the north of the country is favourable to them.

Even before the Gao counterattack, there was been a lot of talk about how the Malian situation is going to turn into “another Afghanistan”… or not… Iraq, Libya and Syria are also invoked as possible models for understanding Mali and deciding on a course of action.

There is another precedent which should help us disentangle the Saharan conflict.

In 1911, Italy invaded the Ottoman provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. Their initial military objectives were easily won as the Turkish forces were outnumbered, outgunned and out-equipped; they could not match the Italian navy so had difficulty sending reinforcements to the small garrisons.
The war on the coast against the regular army lasted less than a year with Italy annexing the two provinces. In the east, the leader of the Senussi, first Sayid Ahmed el-Sherif and his followers fought with the Turks and when they surrendered, he took to the desert and for almost 20 years he and his successor, Omar al Mukhtar (above left, after capture) made life very difficult for the would-be imperialists.

Despite overwhelming force and technical superiority, the Italians were unable to control more than a few outposts away from the coastal strip. They had aeroplanes, motor vehicles, machine guns, artillery and radio and there were usually ten times more Italian troops than Senussi. It’s the same old story from the original guerrilleros in the Peninsular war to the Boers to the Viet Cong. An overwhelming force of well-equipped troops is no match for small numbers of less well-armed committed fighters that know their terrain and have the sympathy of the civilian population.

Mukhtar was in his 60s when he took over command of the Senussi forces and as well as being a respected Koranic scholar, he was a guerrilla leader of genius. He was only defeated after Rodolfo Graziani began to use brutal anti-civilian measures. A fence was built between Egypt and Libya to close the escape route and prevent food and supplies coming through. Much more serious was the deportation and internment. The two most eminent historians of the Italian colonial experience in Libya, Angelo Del Boca and Giorgio Rochat calculated that around 100,000 were deported from Cyrenaica and Rochat uses the word “genocide” when he calculates the death toll as between 30,000 and 70,000 from a total population of 200,000 alone before the war and before these measures.

The uprising was only quelled in 1931 when Mukhtar was wounded, captured and then hanged. The French and Malian forces cannot afford to use Graziani’s methods.

In 1934, the two provinces were united with the sparsely populated desert area of Fezzan and together became the new colony of Libya.

The terrain and balance of forces make some comparison between Cyrenaica and Mali valid. The insurgents in Mali were able to outgun the almost non-existent Malian army but when faced with French forces, they dissolved into the desert without firing a shot. This is why David Cameron reckoned that the problem could be around for “decades”.

But there are many differences between the two campaigns. For a start, the insurgents are divided in Mali with local, Tuareg, Islamic radicals fighting alongside Arabs, mostly foreign. In the early days, after the coup in April last year, they were also fighting with secular Turaregs looking for their own state. Indeed, the new state of “Azawad” was proclaimed by the Azawad National Liberation Movement for but no one recognised it. At the time, our top student was a Tuareg, born in Mali but now stateless (“I am not Malian, I am Tuareg”) who was very excited and for a time was convinced that he and his people had a country. The secular Tuaregs could well provide desert knowledge to fight their erstwhile allies. In a classroom exercise a month ago, we solved the problem by devising a new Berber state made up of parts of Algeria, Mali, Niger and Libya. Then we came back to reality.

Worse for the insurgents, they are far from having civilian support as Omar al Mukhtar certainly did. Not only is there the division between Tuareg and Arab, and Berbers further north, between foreigners and locals, between sub-Saharan Africans and the northerners, there is also a division between the radical Muslims and the much more relaxed Malians.

But if the insurgents are divided, their opponents are even more so. Until the French intervention in January, Mali’s neighbours in ECOWAS were full of words but competed with each other as to who could put procrastinate better and longer. I was in Ghana with students then and our speakers from the Ghanaian Ministry of Foreign Affairs were very clear they did not want to get involved in the conflict and nor did their other ECOWAS partners.

On our side of the Mediterranean, there is little more unity. Barbara Spinelli recently noted Germany’s and Italy’s pointed silence on the Malian situation . The outgoing Italian government did want to at least give logistic support to the French operation in Mali but could not persuade the parties to declare themselves. As in the Libyan crisis two years ago, Italy has been much more quiet than its interests warrant. There is an historical lesson that the Italian experience can give the world but Italy too can learn from its own experience in the recent past and decide on a position.

As in previous election years, the American University of Rome will be hosting a two day conference covering election issues, parties, policies and personalities, with analyses from scholars, journalists and politicians. This year it will be on 8-9 March 2013 originally a month before the likely date of the elections, now two weeks after the 24-25 Feb elections. The keynote speeches will be given by Paul Ginsborg and Gianfranco Pasquino.

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