Thursday, 17 January 2013

War in the desert

Young David seems to be rushing Britain into a desert war without even consulting Parliament. But does he know what's in store? For a start, 'countries' like Mali, Algeria, Libya are unbounded. The Sahara is one big anarchic space, across which nomads have roamed for thousands of years without any regard for the lines on the map drawn in distant capitals. Its chief inhabitants are the Touareg, Berber tribes speaking a language akin to those of the mountains of North Africa, quite different from Arabic or any sub-Saharan language. The group that has taken hostages in Algeria call themselves Katibat al-Mulatthamin, which means literally the Brigade of the Veiled Ones. But Mulatthamin usually means Touareg, with reference to the fact that the men veil their faces. Touareg - Tawariq - means literally 'the Strikers' or 'Hitters', such is their reputation. They call themselves the Imuhagh. Nobody has ever been able to control them, and they resent the very attempt. In the past they have always been able to attack settled peoples and then disappear back into the desert. The best the Ottomans could ever do was to confine them in the desert. It remains to be seen what desert warfare will be like in the age of satellite images and drones. It could be very messy.

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