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The Lessons of Mali

January 16, 2013

Considering the French operation to defeat – or at least blunt – the jihad in Mali has only just begun, and the outcome remains impossible to discern, it seems premature to ponder “lessons” just yet. Not least because the U.S. military’s love of “lessons learned” – our British partners more honestly term this process “lessons identified” since they often remained unlearned – is one of the more tedious and frequently ineffectual of Pentagon undertakings. But pondering lessons sooner, not later, seems wise.

There will be no beating up on the French here. For all the neocon love of taunts about “cheese eating surrender monkeys,” as I write this troops of the Foreign Legion are engaging in house-to-house fighting for the key town of Diabaly, the fall of which a few days ago to the mujahidin prompted rapid French intervention. This promises to be a nasty fight, as street combat always is, especially against an enemy quite happy to die in place. I wish the best to the Legionnaires who, Paris assures us, are defending Europe in the deserts of West Africa. You will find not a single paunchy writer for National Review or Commentary in their ranks – for they are specialists in killing muj with their mouths.

No doubt there is a bit of Parisian wag the dog here, since M. Hollande is desperate to distract attention from his disastrously failed domestic policies, but the French are right to be alarmed about the collapse of what’s left of the Malian state and the takeover of the whole place, rather than just half, by the forces of jihad. Mali is a complex place and this struggle is commensurately so. Two years ago, the Tuaregs of the north rebelled against the central government for the fifth time since independence from France in 1960, coinciding with the spread of Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the local Friends of Zawahiri, across the Sahel, along with several other shadowy jihadist groups. It’s premature to claim that the northern half of Mali is “the largest AQ-controlled space on earth” since no one has every really controlled that wasteland in any Western sense. Moreover, AQIM and its jhad-inclined partners are a nebulous bunch, and much of the area is more under the control of the Algerian military, specifically its powerful intelligence service, the DRS, than anyone else. That said, it is unquestionably an ominous development that jihadists of various stripes have managed to penetrate into central Mali, where France fights them now. Indications that Tuareg separatists, who pine for a statelet of their own rather than virgins in paradise, may side with France against the jihadists are encouraging, but this campaign is far from over.

However, it is perfectly clear that France has intervened because American policy in Mali has failed dismally. The controversial creation of DoD’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) in late 2008 was predicated on helping African militaries to fight AQ and its allies on our behalf, with our help, without needing direct U.S. military involvement. No African country was more important to the new AFRICOM in this regard than Mali, where the AQIM threat has been rising for several years, and where DoD has spent vast sums and man-hours trying to bring the Malian security forces up to snuff. Emphasizing what the Pentagon calls Phase Zero operations, meaning trying to prevent a full-blown rebellion from breaking out, has been AFRICOM’s main job across the Sahel, Mali especially. This falls under the au courant rubric of Theater Security Cooperation, a Pentagonism which has launched ten thousand PowerPoints, but TSC’s connection to reality is sometimes tenuous, as the Malian case shows.

Just how blind to local realities AFRICOM’s expensive Malian adventure was has been summed up nicely by Adam Garfinkle in a new article which is worth quoting at length:

the U.S. counterterrorism training mission in Mali made the stupefying mistake of choosing three of four northern unit commanders to train who were Tuareg. As the article says, when the Tuareg rebellion in Mali gained steam after the denouement of the Libya caper, greatly stimulated by the return of heavily armed Tuareg brethren from that fight, these three Tuareg commanders defected to the rebels, bringing soldiers, vehicles, ammunition and more to the anti-government side. Anyone who was surprised by this is an idiot, or at the very least a terminal ignoramus. And anyone in the U.S. military who failed to understand the ethnic composition of the country’s politico-military cleavages, such that he let U.S. Special Forces training be lavished on Tuareg commanders, was clearly insufficiently trained to do his job. And believe me, that’s about as nice a way to put that as I can summon.

As one who has gotten the (frequently delusional) AFRICOM perspective in more than one painful PowerPoint briefing, I cannot improve on that assessment. It’s not DoD’s fault that an officer trained in U.S. military schools led a coup in Mali last March, one more thing which destabilized a weak state, but it is certainly the Pentagon’s fault that it enacts policies which seem willfully blind to local politico-ethnic realities. Mali is hardly the first place DoD has followed an unwitting own-goal policy, but here the consequences were swift and painful.

Last fall Paris – which has better connections in its former African colonies than the U.S. ever will – was warning that Mali was on the verge of state collapse, with a jihadistan stretching over the region being a real possibility. Another big factor here was how northern Mali was flush with weaponry, thanks to NATO’s 2011 crushing of the Gadhafi regime in neighboring Libya, where huge arsenals of small arms were opened up, to the benefit of rebels, bandits, and holy warriors of many stripes all over Northwest Africa. French concerns, however, were blown off rudely. General Carter Ham, the AFRICOM commander, stated bluntly that military intervention in Mali would fail, while our always tactless UN Ambassador Susan Rice publicly mocked French plans to bolster Mali against the jihad, which had regional African backing, as “crap”. Of course, last week, when American-trained Mali forces fell apart under jihadist assaults, leaving the country vulnerable to takeover by madmen, it was U.S. plans and policy which were revealed to be crap. One hopes Ambassador Rice has the decency to send a discreet apology to the Quai d’Orsay, accompanied by a decent bottle of wine. Maybe General Ham can co-sign the card and chip in a few bucks for the wine.

Where Mali goes from here is unclear. Harder fighting is ahead than many realize. But don’t count the French, who have long experience in West Africa, out just yet. This campaign, which appears a weird redo of a similar operation back in the 19th century to crush jihad-inspired rebels in the same part of Mali, has the backing of pretty much the whole world, and already NATO allies are stepping forward with logistical and related assistance. A great deal of the rebellion could be finished off with a pair of U.S. Air Force AC-130 gunships, which may be the outcome anyway.

There is much concern about Mali becoming another Afghanistan, meaning a never-ending counterinsurgency operation against determined Muslim rebels, minus the mountains and far closer to Europe. This worry may be overstated, however, since the French seem to be approaching this in the vintage manner of suppressing a rebellion – something they did frequently in their old empire – rather than counterinsurgency in the current Petraeusian understanding. This is about killing off those you cannot deal with, and buying off those you can, not woolly-headed posturing about “nation-building” in the vast deserts of the Sahel. It bears noting that the French, crushing rebellions every few years back in the old days, built far more durable local institutions than anything the U.S. has managed to pull off anywhere since 2001.

How, then, should the U.S. and DoD deal with unstable and poorly governed places where the extremist threat is real? That’s a biggie for another post, soon.

[N.B. The opinions expressed here are the author's alone and not those of the Naval War College or the Department of Defense.]

3 Comments
  1. RICanuck permalink

    About 7 – 8 years ago, I stumbled across a blog dedicated to ending or reducing US agricultural societies. It had a long article about how US cotton subsidies were damaging Malian cotton growers. Do you have an opinion as to whether or not agricultural subsidies may have contributed to the ‘unrest’ in Mali?

    As to your last sentence, I have little confidence in the ability of the American governing class to even be aware of the dynamics, interests, and players in foreign countries. Susan Rice’s lack of diplomacy you linked to is only one example. Most other countries know that diplomats need to employ diplomacy on occasion.

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