Ian Birrell: Like Afghanistan, Mali is a victim of our 'war on terror'

Al-Qa'ida in the Maghreb is increasingly active, while even Nigeria's Islamist Boko Haram is involved

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So now we know that Nato will bring its misguided campaign in Afghanistan to a close by the end of 2014, although even Barack Obama admits that the country will remain highly insecure and a hotbed of terrorist activity. A war in which 414 British service personnel have died and which has cost the country £17.3bn will turn out to have been one of depressing futility, our troops possibly having to fight their way out and our government doing dodgy deals with central Asian despots to release our equipment.

If nothing else, the closing of this tragic chapter should serve as a warning that the world needs to be on guard against the failure of nations. But even as Nato leaders slapped backs in Chicago this week, there is little attention being given to the rapid collapse of another country – an event that could have devastating global implications.

For 20 years, the west African nation of Mali has been a model of stability – a tranquil, beautiful country famed for its mangos, music and mud buildings. But following a coup – an increasingly rare event in modern Africa – two months ago, it has descended from beacon of democracy to basket case with shocking speed.

This accidental coup began with a barracks mutiny on 22 March. A group of soldiers, angered by lack of supplies to crush a festering rebellion in the huge northern desert region, ended up in control of the capital. This weekend, regional leaders brokered a deal for a return to democracy in 12 months' time – partly by bribing the blundering coup leader with the spoils of presidential office, complete with a mansion and pension 50 times his current pay as an army captain. Despite this, there are fears the agreement will not stick.

Typical of the sudden chaos engulfing the country, the deal resulted in the 70-year-old interim president, a renowned scientist, being beaten by a mob. This in a country formerly so law-abiding that when a friend of mine left his wallet in a nightclub it had been returned to his hotel by the time he awoke. Now residents stay indoors at night, terrified by incidents such as the gang rape of a teenage girl, filmed on a mobile phone.

But it is events in the north that are so alarming. One legacy of colonialism is that Mali, like many African countries, is an uneasy fusion of diverse cultures. The Tuareg took advantage of the coup to declare independence, sparking events that have led to the black flag of al-Qa'ida fluttering over buildings, foreign militants flooding in, refugees pouring out, and harsh sharia law being imposed.

It is all a dismal echo of Afghanistan. Nationalist groups fighting for control with Islamist gangs, while families and clans settle old scores in the most brutal manner. Many of the soldiers are well-armed and battle-hardened after fighting for Gaddafi in Libya.

At the centre of events is a charismatic figure named Iyad al Ghaly. He was leader of an earlier Tuareg revolt who, influenced by Pakistani salifists, became an Islamist and now heads a powerful group called Ansar ud-Dine.

Traditionally, the Tuaregs enjoy music and dancing, while women have gone uncovered. Now they are are being told to cover up, with even male and female children banned from walking together. Music and television are prohibited, shops are closed, and looters threatened with beheading. Cities are being emptied, with an estimated 310,000 people displaced. Gao, the most populous centre, is now a ghost town while in Niafunke, where once Grammy-winning guitarist Ali Farka Touré was mayor, four out of five residents have fled and those remaining are preyed on by marauding militia. In Timbuktu, one of the most extraordinary and mystical cities on earth, a sufi shrine has been destroyed, to the fury of locals. There are fears that the legendary libraries, holding thousands of ancient texts, may be next.

This is not just a tragedy for Mali. The civil war is drawing in neighbouring countries who are starting to fight a proxy war with their chosen groups. Al-Qa'ida in the Maghreb, thought to be Algerian-backed and behind the kidnap and killing of Western tourists, is increasingly active, while there are claims that even Nigeria's Islamist group Boko Haram has become involved.

Already there is a humanitarian crisis. It could get far worse: we have seen the damage caused by a broken, chaotic country – and how Islamist terror groups promising stability can fill the void. This crisis threatens the entire West African and Maghreb region; even the most peaceful countries could suffer collateral damage.

Mali is a huge and strategically important country. This is why American special forces have been operating there and why the West encouraged the militarisation of the north – a policy that has backfired so spectacularly. Mali may be one more victim of the "war on terror". And just as in Afghanistan, the shockwaves from this disaster in the desert could be felt far beyond its own borders.

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