Commentary: Bloody amnesia

By ARNAUD DE BORCHGRAVE, UPI Editor at Large  |  Jan. 18, 2013 at 8:43 AM
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WASHINGTON, Jan. 18 (UPI) -- When the Soviet Union accepted defeat in Afghanistan in 1989 and went home to a crumbling empire, victorious Arab jihadist volunteers went back to their countries, expecting to be hailed as heroes.

Instead, they were as welcome as skunks at a walima (Arab marriage banquet).

Established Arab governments saw them as dangerous subversives. Many went back to Afghanistan to "re-up" with Osama bin Laden and his close ally Mullah Omar and his Taliban guerrillas who were getting ready to conquer the country abandoned by the Soviet army.

Many married Afghan women and became the core of bin Laden's Afghan Arab volunteers.

Their religious ideology was Pan Islamic.

Following 9/11, U.S. military intervention pushed al-Qaida back into Pakistan and from there many went home again to Middle Eastern and North African countries.

Al-Qaida and its associated movements spun off area affiliates. AQIM was al-Qaida in Islamic Maghreb, or northern Africa.

In Algeria, those who stayed home joined the underground resistance to the military regime.

In power since they defeated the French army in an 8-year war and won their independence in 1962, Algeria's military leaders decided to take a chance on a free election. This was designed to demonstrate that Islamists were an insignificant minority.

Instead, Algerian religious fanatics swept the field with a crushing majority of the votes. Army leaders canceled the results and tightened their military dictatorship.

Appalling bloodletting followed -- on both sides. Estimates of those killed range from 200,000 to 1 million in a population of 25 million.

Algeria's military regime is still in power while its erstwhile enemy, the jihadists, are based across the border in Mali, another former French colony that is a huge, largely ungoverned desert except for five small towns.

From these deserted bases, they set out to conquer Mali for jihad. The Mali army, ill-equipped with little discipline, kept falling back toward the capital city of Bamako.

Two-thirds of the country escapes central government control. Jihadist guerrillas have been moving around with no opposition.

In fabled Timbuktu so-called holy warriors destroyed the 15th-century mausoleum of Sufi saints -- four days after UNESCO placed the town on its list of historical sites.

An all-African force from neighboring countries (including giant Nigeria) has been gearing up to intervene under the U.N. flag. But several key countries dragged their boots and France's new socialist government decided it couldn't wait any longer -- or the country would fall to Islamic terrorists.

Some 1,500 elite French troops, including foreign legionnaires, flew in with armored cars and field artillery and quickly moved northeast to engage the jihadists who occupied three smaller towns south of the Algerian border.

French fighter jets flew in to Bamako and began strafing groups of jihadists in the country's huge desert.

It didn't take the Islamist guerrillas long to counter attack. They seized an oil facility in eastern Algeria near the Libyan border in retaliation for the French offensive in Mali. Some 45 western oil workers were taken hostage.

Algerian army commandos and helicopter gunships assigned to a hostage rescue operation were more interested in killing jihadis. Tough luck for many non-Arab hostages; 30 were killed, along with 11 terrorists who were leading them out of the compound.

Algerian officials told anxious Western ambassadors in Algiers, "We don't negotiate with outlaws."

Known to Algerian intelligence as "the uncatchable," Islamist guerrilla leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar had fought in Afghanistan as a teenager under his father's command.

Since France's African colonies became independent in 1960, French forces have intervened 43 times to prop up their African friends -- or even to topple and replace them if they turned against the mother country.

The highly mobile 7,700-strong Foreign Legion is based in Corsica and some 50,000 soldiers and marines are earmarked for overseas operations.

In 1979, France's intelligence chief, Alexandre de Marenches, organized a coup to overthrow Jean-Bedel Bokassa who had blown $20 million -- one-quarter of the Central African Empire's annual income -- on his coronation as self-appointed emperor.

De Marenches got a green light from then French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing.

"If it fails," Giscard warned de Marenches, "it's your funeral." And if it succeeds, "Mum's the word."

In those days, the French CIA, then known as SDEC, had its own paramilitary capability. De Marenches picked David Dacko, a former French puppet to replace Bokassa. De Marenches had even prepared Dacko's proclamation, which was to be broadcast from Bangui TV and radio station.

De Marenches knew Bokassa was on a weekend visit to see his paymaster Moammar Gadhafi. Dacko was put in the back of a limo and driven onto a Transall troop carrier with a contingent of French commandos. A second Transall was jammed with special forces and two jeeps.

No sooner on the ground, than one group raced to the imperial palace with boxes of cash.

Challenged by palace guards, French commandos unloaded sacks of CFA francs -- good as dollars in French-speaking Africa. A French office barked, "Help yourselves." The guards dropped their guns and began scooping up the loot.

"Operation Barracuda," a bloodless coup, was over in less than 30 minutes: Bokassa overthrown, empire abolished and Dacko sworn in as president.

In his proclamation, Dacko appealed to France for assistance. French troops stationed in nearby Brazzaville, on standby at the end of the runway, flew in to provide additional security for the new president.

Mission accomplished. Sentenced to death, Bokassa returned "to die at home" in 1986. Arrested, he was tried and found guilty of cannibalism and killing schoolchildren.

Freed in 1993, his death sentence was commuted for the country's 50th birthday. But he'd been dead a whole year.

For all these reasons, including French lingua franca, U.S. troop involvement in African crises is never an option. But U.S. drones to spot AQAM terrorist movements are gratefully accepted. But the general assumption is if the French can't handle a black African crisis, no one else can.

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