France is in its fifth day of an offensive to oust rebels that have held much of Mali’s northern region since March, an area larger than Afghanistan. The strikes have reportedly killed 11 civilians, including three children fleeing the bombardment of a camp near the central town of Konna. The United Nations estimates as many as 30,000 may have been displaced since fighting began last week. The United States has backed the offensive by helping transport French troops and making plans to send drones or other surveillance aircraft. It is aiding a fight against Malian forces that it once helped train, only to see them defect and join the Islamist rebellion. We discuss the latest in Mali with Al Jazeera correspondent May Ying Welsh, who has reported from Mali’s north, and with freelance journalist Hannah Armstrong, a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs, who joins us from the Malian capital of Bamako. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AARON MATÉ: We begin today’s show in the West African nation of Mali, where the French military has entered the fifth day of a large military offensive. The campaign aims to oust rebels that have held much of country’s north since March, an area larger than Afghanistan. France currently has 750 troops in Mali, but that number is expected to soon triple. On Monday, the U.N. Security Council expressed support for French intervention in its former colony, which reportedly came at the request of Mali’s government. This is French U.N. Ambassador Gérard Araud.
AMB. GÉRARD ARAUD: It happened on—I think it was on Wednesday or Thursday, that suddenly the terrorist armed groups have launched an offensive. They have taken the city of Konna. And at this moment, our assessment was that they were totally able to take Bamako. And so, we decided that what was at stake was the existence of the state of Mali, and beyond Mali was the stability of all West Africa. So it’s with determination, but also with reluctance, that we have decided that we had no other choice that—to launch this military intervention. And we again—and we’ll conduct it as long as it will be necessary.
AMY GOODMAN: The U.S. has backed France’s offensive in Mali. The Los Angeles Times reports the Obama administration is preparing to ferry hundreds of additional French troops to Mali. In addition, U.S. officials say they’re also making plans to send drones or other surveillance aircraft. Meanwhile, France has also called on a force of 3,300 West African troops to deploy in support of the Malian army faster than originally planned.
The French strikes in Mali have reportedly killed 11 civilians, including three children fleeing the bombardment of a camp near the central town of Konna. The U.N. estimate says as many as 30,000 may have been displaced since fighting began last week. Ali Naraghi works with the International Committee of the Red Cross.
ALI NARAGHI: Well, the situation is—is of concern to the ICRC, is fast deteriorating. Mass displacement of population is already being observed. Casualties are, as well, reported. And we’re trying our best to address humanitarian needs of the population. Internally displaced people have now gathered in Mopti, fleeing places such as Konna and Douentza in the other side of the front line.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by several guests. We’ll begin with May Ying Welsh, a reporter for Al Jazeera who has been reporting from Mali’s northern region.
May Ying Welsh, welcome to Democracy Now! She’s joining us from Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha, Qatar. Can you give us background on what’s happening right now?
MAY YING WELSH: Hi, Amy. I can.
You know, I think one of the things that’s gotten lost in a lot of the talk about al-Qaeda and mujahideen and all of that is that—is the way that this conflict started. This conflict started with a movement of secular Tuareg separatists who rose up and demanded an independent state and who started to sweep down into the northern two-thirds of Mali to take over the area which they consider theirs. And they were shadowed in this operation by some other Tuaregs that had different views, more religious views, as well as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and some other actors. And, you know, together, sort of in an alliance not of the willing, they took over the area. And then, from that point on, the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the mujahideen, the local mujahideen who are allied with them, sort of took over the cities of northern Mali from the Tuareg separatists. So, I think, you know, the genesis of this whole conflict is the Tuareg people of northern Mali demanding a state, which is a very old demand, which goes back to 1963, of the first Tuareg rebellion.
And I think it also needs to be mentioned that France has very important economic interests, not necessarily in Mali, but in neighboring northern Niger, which is also a Tuareg area. And this whole area of northern Mali and northern Niger is a uranium-rich area, which is a Tuareg area, and which shares the same tribes going back and forth between the two, some of the same tribes, some of the same families even. And usually when you have a Tuareg rebellion or uprising in Mali, it spreads to Niger, and when you have one in Niger, it spreads to Mali, because they’re really all one people. And the Tuaregs, in general, have a kind of a national sense. I would compare them with the Kurds. They’re—they consider themselves one people, whether they’re in the Sahara of Algeria or the Sahara of Libya or the Sahara of Mali or the Sahara of Niger. For them, it’s just their homeland.
And so, you know, France has a huge economic interest in northern Niger. That is—northern Niger, Niger, is one of the world’s biggest reserves of uranium. France is—gets 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear power. And as we know, France is a major exporter of nuclear power, and it’s a major component of French’s—the France’s military-industrial entity. I mean, uranium, you know, the uranium from Niger, which is France’s former colony, really was a key for France in its own development. I mean, they developed their nuclear industry on the back of that very cheap uranium coming from northern Niger, which, by the way, Niger is one of the bottom three poorest countries in the world, according to the U.N. Human Rights—U.N. Human Development Index. I mean, it has one of the world’s most important resources, and yet it’s one of the poorest. Northern Mali also has a large amount of uranium, and the whole area has been divided up into exploration concessions, and there are a number of companies that are just waiting for the chance to get in there. And also gold and oil.
AARON MATÉ: As we understand this background, I want to turn to a report that Al Jazeera’s May Ying Welsh filed in December from northern Mali. She explains how al-Qaeda-linked groups managed to expel Tuareg rebels from their self-declared rule, suspending their plans for statehood.
MAY YING WELSH: Tuareg rebels train in Gao to defend their new self-declared state. Who could know, in a few short days, they’d be violently expelled from this base, or that their new president, only just appointed head of state, would be shot and evacuated from the country? Al-Qaeda-backed rebels expelled separatist Tuaregs from their main bases in northern Mali, hoping to terminate their plans for an Azawad state. Now al-Qaeda and its allies are running the region’s cities. As Al Jazeera left the city of Gao, fighters from the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa were closing in, taking over the city gates and all traffic going out and coming in.
In Timbuktu, al-Qaeda offshoot Ansar Dine fully control the town, patrolling this city of Islamic learning for alcohol, adultery and other violations of sharia law. Here the fighters from Algeria and Mauritania mingle with mujahideen from across the Sahel. And from their perch high above Timbuktu, Ansar Dine told Al Jazeera they’ll never ask them to leave.
ANSAR DINE MEMBER: [translated] Their brothers in al-Qaeda are our brothers in religion. And they’re here with us, overseeing things in the same area that we are working. And our relationship with them is one of Muslim to Muslim. By what right could we expel them, and to serve who? As a service to France? Or America?
MAY YING WELSH: At this hideout in another northern town, Tuareg rebels say al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb are proxies of Mali and Algeria, utilized for years to isolate Tuareg communities and prevent the appearance of a Tuareg state.
TUAREG REBEL: [translated] The main enemy of the Malian government is the northern rebellion, the Tuareg. This is the belief system upon which the Malian state is based, that the primary enemy is the Tuareg, because since the birth of Mali, Tuaregs said the Malian state had taken their land, just like the French colonialists, and that Tuareg land, Azawad, has never in fact been part of Mali.
MAY YING WELSH: Tuareg rebels are now scattered, trying to regroup. They don’t have the logistics and high-tech gear of their rivals or the hundreds of millions in cash that al-Qaeda has from hostage ransoms. What they have is a seemingly endless supply of young men ready to die for the cause, a 50-year-old self-determination struggle of the Sahara’s indigenous people.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s May Ying Welsh’s report from Mali. She is a reporter for Al Jazeera English. We’re going to go to a break, and when we come back, the second part of that report, as we go back to her in Doha, Qatar. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Back in a minute.
AARON MATÉ: Let’s turn now to another report filed by our guest, Al Jazeera’s May Ying Welsh, over the summer from northern Mali. In this piece, she explains how the turmoil in Timbuktu made it difficult to manage a severe food shortage.
MAY YING WELSH: Abu Bakr [phon.] walked two days from the village to sell his sheep in Timbuktu. He is exhausted and hungry, and his animal is, too, no longer able to stand or walk, but it represents his only hope of earning money to buy food. At Timbuktu’s main market, villagers hope to sell their animals before they die. Here, drought is wiping out animal herds, and thousands of people who depend on them are going hungry.
ABU BAKR: [translated] This is the worst year of drought I have ever seen. There’s no pasture for the animals, and they are starving. There is nothing for them to eat. There is nothing at all.
MAY YING WELSH: Abu Bakr is barely awake. He wonders how he can survive. No one wants to buy an animal that’s dying. In Timbuktu town, only those too poor or too weak to leave remain. Staples like rice and millet have doubled in price. Freshly slaughtered meat festers in the sun. Most people who had money to buy it have gone.
MEAT VENDOR: [translated] Who would pay for this? We can’t even find someone who has $2. Many people here have become thieves. They’ve become criminals in the place they were born. The people of this city are afraid. We can’t sleep. There is no medicine. There is no water. There is nothing.
MAY YING WELSH: At Timbuktu hospital, the impact of the Sahel drought and security crisis on families is clear. Bags of Plumpy’nut and a small team of medics from Doctors Without Borders wait for those who make it here. For the man in charge, Timbuktu native Saidou Bah, it’s painful to see his city this way.
SAIDOU BAH: [translated] Malnutrition is worsened because of many factors this year. There is insecurity. State services no longer exist. There is the drought, not enough rain. I hope the world will look at Timbuktu, because Timbuktu is living a truly difficult moment today.
MAY YING WELSH: It takes days to reach the city by car, and most aid agencies can’t take the risk. For now, Timbuktu and its people face this crisis alone, isolated from the world.
AARON MATÉ: And that report by May Ying Welsh, our guest in Doha, speaking to us from the headquarters of Al Jazeera, reporting in that piece from Mali.
May Ying Welsh, I wanted to ask you about the U.S. role here. Few people understand that there’s actually a heavy connection with Libya in the current conflict in Mali. Can you talk about that?
MAY YING WELSH: Well, it is true that a lot of the fighters that started this whole conflict had recently come back from Libya. Tuaregs have been rising up against their governments in Mali and Niger for decades now. And a long time ago, back in the 1980s, Muammar Gaddafi offered them a place in his army and military training camps. So a lot of them went there hoping that they would be able to further their own cause, and they ended up becoming part of his military. When he fell, they came back to Mali and Niger, some of them heavily armed and, you know, in a very desperate position. And they resumed their struggle, their struggle which has been going on for decades. So, I think the fall of Gaddafi in Libya did act as a catalyst for the conflict that we’re seeing in Mali.
Another—if you want to look at another aspect of U.S. involvement in Mali, the United States government has been supplying Mali and also Niger and other countries of the Sahel with counterterrorism assistance. It’s millions and millions of dollars every year in equipment and training and other ways in order to fight al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which is in the area. And, you know, I’ve talked to a lot of people who used to work in the Mali government, who have told me that that aid that the United States sent supposedly to fight al-Qaeda was actually diverted to fight the Tuareg rebellion in the north, which is kind of continuously simmering and has never fully gone away. You know, and that’s—you know, I hope that when this whole conflict calms down a little bit, there will be a chance for people to really take a look at the mistakes that were made by the previous Malian government and by its supporters in the United States and in the European Union, who really looked the other way on an unbelievable amount of corruption and misuse of the materials that they were giving them.
As well as, you know—you know, there are very serious allegations that—coming even from neighboring Niger, that the former president himself was involved in some kind of a deal with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, in which the massive hostage ransoms, which were going to—you know, coming from European governments to ransom off the Western hostages and get them free from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb—the hostage ransom negotiations were done under the auspices of the Malian presidency. And one of the main negotiators was Iyad Ag Ghaly, who is currently the head of Ansar Dine, and he was a close political associate of the former president. This man is currently the head of the mujahideen who are now attacking Konna and have precipitated the crisis we see now with France intervening.
So I think those are some questions we really need to ask. What was—you know, what was the role of the Malian government in creating this crisis, and how did the European Union and the United States enable it?
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring in Hannah Armstrong, who is a Bamako-based research fellow with the Institute of Current World Affairs, been analyzing the Sahel region of Africa for the past five years and has spent the past year in Mali and Mauritania and Tunisia. Hannah, you’re on the ground in the capital of Mali right now, in Bamako. What is happening there?
HANNAH ARMSTRONG: Hi, Amy.
All I can say, there is a tremendous outcry of support for France and euphoria that the intervention has finally been kicked off. It’s very counterintuitive that the Malians would be thrilled to see, you know, 2,500 French troops arriving on their soil, but, you know, I can attest that’s very much the case right now. When the French talked about, you know, this sense that there was an existential threat and that—and the Islamists [inaudible] last week could have easily wound up in taking Bamako, there’s really a strong belief here that that was the case. First of all, it’s kind of happening when the Islamists started to sort of mass toward the border of the territory that’s controlled by the military.
AMY GOODMAN: Hannah, if you could come closer to your computer; we’re having a lot of trouble understanding you.
HANNAH ARMSTRONG: Sure. Is that better?
AMY GOODMAN: Just keep talking.
HANNAH ARMSTRONG: OK, well, I was saying that there’s really a lot of euphoria. The Malians were quite panicked about the situation with the mujahideen massing toward the southern garrison this very last week. So, they didn’t have a lot of confidence in their own army to be able to stand their ground. There were already reports of Malian soldiers fleeing this new offensive. So, as counterintuitive as it is for an ex-Africa colony—an ex-France colony to be thrilled about the arrival of French troops and tanks on the ground, I can tell you that it’s very much the case. In Bamako, the Malians are actually calling François Hollande "Papa Hollande." And there’s a huge sense of relief here.
AMY GOODMAN: May Ying Welsh in Doha, your response to what Hannah is describing on the ground, euphoria in Bamako with the French—with the French bombing of Mali?
MAY YING WELSH: Yeah, I think—I think that, you know, France, to some extent, created Mali by putting northern Mali and southern Mali together, and it takes France to keep it together. You know, why is the Malian army unable to control the north? Why did so many of the Tuareg and Arab officers and soldiers who were leading, you know, the Malian army in the north, why did so many of them defect or disappear? You know, I think that, you know, there is a real issue here with the Malian army having a difficult time.
Until—unless and until the people of the north feel a little bit more really invested and, you know, feel more like citizens in Mali, until that happens, until there’s massive development in the north and real democracy, as opposed to tokenism and sort of empowering certain individuals and cronyism and corruption, instead of—instead of enabling drug smuggling and these kinds of forms of controlling the populace and having a few beneficiaries, if they could have a real democracy and include the people in the north, you know, maybe they wouldn’t have their Arab and Tuareg officers defecting on them and be unable to militarily control the north. You know what I mean? I mean, the people of the north, clearly, don’t feel all that invested in Mali, not as invested as the Bambara people of the south clearly do. You know, I mean, either that or the country has to consider other forms of existence, like autonomy or breakup or something else. It’s either democracy and real inclusion, like real democracy, or Mali is not headed in a good direction as a unitary state.
AARON MATÉ: May Ying Welsh, you mentioned the defection of Malian forces to the rebels, and in fact there was a very fascinating New York Times piece yesterday reporting that these forces were in fact trained by the U.S., saying, quote, "Commanders of this nation’s elite army units, the fruit of years of careful American training, defected when they were needed most—taking troops, guns, trucks and their newfound skills to the enemy in the heat of battle," going on to say that, in fact, "an American-trained officer overthrew Mali’s elected government, setting the stage for more than half of the country to fall into the hands of Islamic extremists." Your response?
MAY YING WELSH: Yeah, I mean, I agree that—I agree that—you know, I think that’s very similar to what I just said, you know, that the Malian government, because the people of the south are not—you know, it’s the Sahara. It’s really different than the southern half of the country. It’s—the Saharan area requires, you know, certain kinds of soldiers and abilities and certain kind of equipment. And, you know, it was natural for them to, of course, try to use the local people of the area to lead the army up there. That is the natural thing to do.
But, you know, like I said before, if you don’t have a real democracy underpinning that, where there’s real investment on the part of those people, not just in the military and not just in, you know, controlling some drug-smuggling routes and giving kickbacks to the president and his wife, you know, I mean, if you’re not going to—if you’re not going to give the people some real investment in the country, you can expect these kind of defections, and you can expect every single Tuareg, you know, to turn rebel tomorrow, which is what always happens.
AMY GOODMAN: May Ying, we want to thank you very much for being with us. May Ying Welsh, reporter for Al Jazeera English, recently filed an exclusive report from inside Mali’s restive northern region, which we’ll link to online. Her most recent piece is "Making Sense of Mali’s Armed Groups," working on a documentary about Mali, speaking to us from Doha, Qatar, from the headquarters of Al Jazeera and Al Jazeera English. And I want to thank Hannah, though we had trouble understanding her, from the capital of Mali, in Bamako, Hannah Armstrong, a research fellow with the Institute of Current World Affairs.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we will be talking about Vietnam. The heads of the foreign policy establishment that have been nominated by President Obama, Chuck Hagel to head defense and John Kerry to become secretary of state, both fought in Vietnam. We’ll look at Vietnam and talk to the author of an explosive new book. Stay with us.