Commentary Magazine


Topic: counterinsurgency

Iraq’s Lessons for France in Mali

The French are having initial and not unexpected success in Mali. Their fast-moving troops have taken the major city of Gao and are now about to enter fabled Timbuktu. Their advance was made possible–just as with the rapid American success in Afghanistan in 2001 and in Iraq in 2003–by the revulsion of ordinary people with a hated and despotic regime. Incredibly, Malians are shouting “Vive la France” to welcome their onetime colonial rulers back.

The epitaph–at least for the time being–for Islamist rule in northern Mali comes from a 26-year-old Malian student quoted in the New York Times lamenting: “No smoking, no music, no girlfriends. We couldn’t do anything fun.” This recalls the Iraqi man who famously greeted the American invasion of Iraq with those immortal words: “Democracy! Whiskey! Sexy!”

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The French are having initial and not unexpected success in Mali. Their fast-moving troops have taken the major city of Gao and are now about to enter fabled Timbuktu. Their advance was made possible–just as with the rapid American success in Afghanistan in 2001 and in Iraq in 2003–by the revulsion of ordinary people with a hated and despotic regime. Incredibly, Malians are shouting “Vive la France” to welcome their onetime colonial rulers back.

The epitaph–at least for the time being–for Islamist rule in northern Mali comes from a 26-year-old Malian student quoted in the New York Times lamenting: “No smoking, no music, no girlfriends. We couldn’t do anything fun.” This recalls the Iraqi man who famously greeted the American invasion of Iraq with those immortal words: “Democracy! Whiskey! Sexy!”

Unfortunately, Iraqi elation at being liberated soon turned to anger because the U.S. did not do enough to secure the country, allowing the creation of chaotic conditions in which insurgents and criminals ran rampant. That is a lesson France must keep in mind today even as French politicians constantly affirm their desire to evacuate Mali as soon as possible–a hope that echoes the sentiments of Donald Rumsfeld and Tommy Franks during the initial invasion of Iraq.

The French desire to leave Mali is understandable–as was the American desire to leave Iraq. But if the Iraq War taught us anything it should be that an invading force cannot responsibly head for the exits until it has made some provision to maintain stability and security.

In the case of Mali this will be a formidable and long-term challenge. The Malian army is feeble, better at staging coups than fighting hardened Islamist rebels. The peacekeeping force contributed by neighboring West African states is not much better–it is badly armed, ill-trained, and lacking in the most basic equipment. In any case a few thousand troops, even if they were trained and equipped to a much higher standard, would find it challenging to secure an area the size of Texas.

The French troops are currently in the “clear” phase of their counterinsurgency campaign, but unless they stick around for follow-on “clear and hold” operations, their initial gains are likely to prove fleeting. The Islamist guerrillas are retreating so they can fight another day. Stopping them from coming back is going to prove, at least for the short term, beyond the capabilities of the African military forces on the ground. Either France stays and helps to do the job itself or the cheers its troops are now hearing will soon turn to jeers.

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No Need for NATO Ground Troops in Syria

In light of my recent writing on Syria, bemoaning the Obama administration’s strangely passive stance, a knowledgeable reader writes to ask:  “Would you be willing to support US/NATO/UN-backed troops on the ground in Syria?” He explains:

My big concern now is that simple aid, even with a no-fly zone in place, would be too little, too late, and we wouldn’t have enough organic C4ISR assets in country to 1) effectively leverage our assets to best effect, and 2) ensure that hostile or potentially hostile elements weren’t benefiting from our efforts at aid.  But Syria is untenable now.  It’s a failed state, with a rogue state embedded within it, every nasty element in the wider Middle East on the ground, and desperately in need of — and I use this term with some reluctance — Western intervention.

I agree with him about the need for Western intervention. I disagree, at least based on the situation so far, on the need for Western ground troops.

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In light of my recent writing on Syria, bemoaning the Obama administration’s strangely passive stance, a knowledgeable reader writes to ask:  “Would you be willing to support US/NATO/UN-backed troops on the ground in Syria?” He explains:

My big concern now is that simple aid, even with a no-fly zone in place, would be too little, too late, and we wouldn’t have enough organic C4ISR assets in country to 1) effectively leverage our assets to best effect, and 2) ensure that hostile or potentially hostile elements weren’t benefiting from our efforts at aid.  But Syria is untenable now.  It’s a failed state, with a rogue state embedded within it, every nasty element in the wider Middle East on the ground, and desperately in need of — and I use this term with some reluctance — Western intervention.

I agree with him about the need for Western intervention. I disagree, at least based on the situation so far, on the need for Western ground troops.

There is simply not the will in the U.S., or in any of our major allies, to organize the kind of ground force that would be needed to pacify such a volatile country of 20 million people–two-thirds the size of Afghanistan. Using a traditional counterinsurgency rule of thumb, which suggests you need at least one counterinsurgent per 50 civilians, would produce an estimate of 400,000 troops needed to bring peace to Syria. Simply stating the requirement is to suggest how fantastic it is to contemplate–there is no chance that the U.S. or our allies would ante up anywhere close to that number. Of course it’s possible to muddle by with less, as we have done in Iraq or Afghanistan, but there is scant chance of even sending 100,000 or 200,000 troops. And there is no point in sending a small, symbolic force, of the kind that the U.S., France, and other Western allies sent to Lebanon in 1983, following the Israeli invasion and in the midst of the Lebanese civil war. This would simply make our troops an inviting target for extremists, leading to more tragedies such as the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut.

The analogy is a sobering one because the architect of the Marine barracks bombing, which killed 241 sailors and marines, was Hezbollah–and that potent terrorist organization, with ample Iranian backing, is located directly across the border in Lebanon. It could easily extend its operations into Syria to target U.S. troops, as it did already in Iraq. The last thing we want is to fight a counterinsurgency campaign against a foreign-backed organization which enjoys safe havens in a neighboring country.

Luckily, however, I do not believe there is any need for American or other Western ground troops to go anywhere near Syria beyond a small number of Special Operations Forces and intelligence operatives to coordinate with the rebels. Turkey could usefully provide some troops, not to march on Damascus, but simply to protect “safe zones” along the Turkish border where refugees could come and Syrian rebels could organize to take over the country. But the American contribution should be limited to providing intelligence and other types of support for the rebels. At most we should conduct air operations to impose a no-fly zone and to attack regime targets in cooperation with rebel forces, as we did in Libya, Afghanistan (in 2001), Kosovo, and Bosnia. That’s it. The risks of such an operation are exceedingly small–it would take only a few days to neutralize Syria’s air defense, leaving the regime helpless in the face of Western airpower. Even such an operation should be mounted only with allied cooperation, preferably to include the imprimatur of NATO and the Arab League.

Once the Assad regime falls, it is possible that there will be a need for international peacekeeping forces to help an emerging democratic regime to bring order to the country and to safeguard dangerous assets such as Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile. Even then, the U.S. should tread carefully–putting American troops on the ground is a high-risk option and one we need to avoid if at all possible. I advocated the dispatch of an international stabilization force to Libya after the fall of Qaddafi and it may make sense to send such a force to Syria after Assad’s fall, but the U.S. should not take the lead on ground forces, because our troops are such an inviting target for terrorists. We could help as part of a multinational coalition with the backing of the UN, NATO and the Arab League but we should do nothing to convey the impression of an “American invasion.” This is a case where we would be wiser to act primarily although not exclusively through proxies–both external (Turkey, Jordan) and internal (the Free Syrian Army). But we do need to act; we can’t simply sit on the sidelines watching the civil war spiral out of control.

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