Commentary Magazine


Topic: Mali

Return of the War That Never Went Away

The crisis in Iraq is certainly testing President Obama’s desire to wash the administration’s hands of that country, its politics, and its violence. Conservatives predicted precisely this outcome when warning of a precipitous withdrawal of troops according to arbitrary timelines or magical thinking–both of which the Obama administration relied on–though the speed of the collapse has been surprising.

But it’s also testing Obama’s desire to abstain from involvement in other conflicts as well because Obama seems to realize, correctly, that borders in the Middle East are becoming increasingly abstract. If the president intervenes further in Iraq, for example, he will be essentially intervening in Syria as well, because those two conflicts are bleeding into one another. The terrorist group causing the most trouble there tellingly calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which at first appeared arrogant but now seems to simply reflect reality.

In its story on Obama’s decision to deny Iraqi requests for airstrikes, the New York Times explains:

Read More

The crisis in Iraq is certainly testing President Obama’s desire to wash the administration’s hands of that country, its politics, and its violence. Conservatives predicted precisely this outcome when warning of a precipitous withdrawal of troops according to arbitrary timelines or magical thinking–both of which the Obama administration relied on–though the speed of the collapse has been surprising.

But it’s also testing Obama’s desire to abstain from involvement in other conflicts as well because Obama seems to realize, correctly, that borders in the Middle East are becoming increasingly abstract. If the president intervenes further in Iraq, for example, he will be essentially intervening in Syria as well, because those two conflicts are bleeding into one another. The terrorist group causing the most trouble there tellingly calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which at first appeared arrogant but now seems to simply reflect reality.

In its story on Obama’s decision to deny Iraqi requests for airstrikes, the New York Times explains:

The swift capture of Mosul by militants aligned with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has underscored how the conflicts in Syria and Iraq have converged into one widening regional insurgency with fighters coursing back and forth through the porous border between the two countries. But it has also called attention to the limits the White House has imposed on the use of American power in an increasingly violent and volatile region.

There is an obvious argument to be made for intervening in Iraq but not Syria: our previous involvement there. But that argument faded greatly after Obama decided the war was over and our combat mission ended. Now we’re back basically on the outside looking in. At this point, can Obama clearly make a case for additional strikes in Iraq that would still logically avoid implicitly making the case for the same in Syria? Sentimental value won’t count for much.

Obama has put great effort into differentiating conflicts so as to avoid a game of intervention dominoes, for instance by agreeing to decapitate the Gaddafi regime but not the house of Assad. He rejected the idea of humanitarian intervention in Syria as well, arguing that that the U.S. did not have a responsibility to protect but did have an obligation to curtail the use of chemical weapons. Seeking to build a case for possibly stepping up its aid to the Syrian rebels, Obama was shifting to “emphasize Syria’s growing status as a haven for terrorist groups, some of which are linked to Al Qaeda.” By that standard, Iraq beckons as well.

Perhaps Obama could at least make the argument that Syria and Iraq can be taken together as one conflict and thus not a harbinger of broader military action in the region. But the Times report shows why that would be a tall order:

The Obama administration has carried out drone strikes against militants in Yemen and Pakistan, where it fears terrorists have been hatching plans to attack the United States. But despite the fact that Sunni militants have been making steady advances and may be carving out new havens from which they could carry out attacks against the West, administration spokesmen have insisted that the United States is not actively considering using warplanes or armed drones to strike them.

Right. And suddenly it becomes clear: We’re fighting a (gasp!) global war on terror.

The compartmentalization of conflicts by Obama and others was a necessary element for them to oppose the Bush administration’s war on terror because it was the only way to conceptually remove the common thread that held together Bush’s strategy. But that relied on the belief that the international state system was intact and robust enough to deal with international terrorism. It was a nice idea, but it proved naïve and dangerous.

Obama learned this when he sent forces into Pakistan to get Osama bin Laden. He learned it again when he had to send drones after Yemen-based terrorists. He learned and relearned it throughout the Arab Spring, as dictatorships fell and transnational terror networks like the Muslim Brotherhood rose. He learned it when weapons from the Libyan civil war fueled a military coup in Mali. He learned it when his administration practically begged the Russian government to accept American counterterrorism help to safeguard the Olympics in Sochi.

And now he’s looking at a stateless mass of terrorism stretching across the Middle East but specifically melding the Syria and Iraq conflicts. He’s looking at a global terror war and trying to figure out increasingly creative ways not to say so. Obama wanted this war to be a different war, and to be over. But he forgot that the enemy always gets a vote. And we still have a lot of enemies.

Read Less

When American Interests Become Impossible to Ignore

The debate over whether and how to intervene in foreign conflicts tends to center on American interests, with special emphasis on threats to the U.S. This is especially true in civil wars and internal conflicts in countries with which we do not have any expressly delineated obligations. After all, even those opposed to NATO’s expansion might hesitate to suggest we renege on a mutual defense treaty.

This would seem to prejudice policy against humanitarian intervention, but in reality noninterventionists have settled on a kind of “boots on the ground” commitment as the red line. That’s why, as Jonathan wrote earlier, we don’t hear many voices protesting efforts to help recover the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram the way we do when the subject turns to Syria. But in a globalized world it’s no simple thing to argue that we have no interests–or even threats–at stake in the Syrian civil war, as a couple of stories this week make clear.

From the outset the noninterventionists’ arguments suffered from two weaknesses. The first was inconsistency, holding both that American interests are best served by the two sides in the war weakening each other in a bloody status quo but also that we don’t have interests at stake. The second was an unwillingness or inability to look past the present moment or anticipate the consequences of inaction for American interests. On Friday the Washington Post reported that American security officials were now grappling with the same threat that worried European officials months ago:

Read More

The debate over whether and how to intervene in foreign conflicts tends to center on American interests, with special emphasis on threats to the U.S. This is especially true in civil wars and internal conflicts in countries with which we do not have any expressly delineated obligations. After all, even those opposed to NATO’s expansion might hesitate to suggest we renege on a mutual defense treaty.

This would seem to prejudice policy against humanitarian intervention, but in reality noninterventionists have settled on a kind of “boots on the ground” commitment as the red line. That’s why, as Jonathan wrote earlier, we don’t hear many voices protesting efforts to help recover the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram the way we do when the subject turns to Syria. But in a globalized world it’s no simple thing to argue that we have no interests–or even threats–at stake in the Syrian civil war, as a couple of stories this week make clear.

From the outset the noninterventionists’ arguments suffered from two weaknesses. The first was inconsistency, holding both that American interests are best served by the two sides in the war weakening each other in a bloody status quo but also that we don’t have interests at stake. The second was an unwillingness or inability to look past the present moment or anticipate the consequences of inaction for American interests. On Friday the Washington Post reported that American security officials were now grappling with the same threat that worried European officials months ago:

FBI Director James B. Comey said Friday that the problem of Americans traveling to Syria to fight in the civil war there has worsened in recent months and remains a major concern to U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials.

In a wide-ranging interview with reporters at FBI headquarters, Comey said the FBI is worried that the Americans who have joined extremist groups allied with al-Qaeda in Syria will return to the United States to carry out terrorist attacks.

“All of us with a memory of the ’80s and ’90s saw the line drawn from Afghanistan in the ’80s and ’90s to Sept. 11,” Comey said. “We see Syria as that, but an order of magnitude worse in a couple of respects. Far more people going there. Far easier to travel to and back from. So, there’s going to be a diaspora out of Syria at some point and we are determined not to let lines be drawn from Syria today to a future 9/11.”

Comey declined to give a precise figure for Americans believed to be involved in the Syrian struggle but said the numbers are “getting worse.”

Passport-holding American jihadists are certainly a threat. Now, in fairness to noninterventionists, you can still identify this as a threat and believe that it’s not one we can or should prevent through intervention. But the idea that the civil war in Syria doesn’t have global implications and isn’t creating a burgeoning threat to U.S. interests or security is not a plausible argument.

It’s also not so easy to take each conflict in a vacuum. Some realists and liberal interventionists were hailing the modest intervention in Libya to decapitate the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. But “leading from behind” left behind an anarchic nightmare that resulted in a deadly attack on the American mission, the flow of arms to Mali, and now jihadists to Syria. Eli Lake reports that Libya has become a “Scumbag Woodstock” according to intelligence officials: “The country has attracted that star-studded roster of notorious terrorists and fanatics seeking to wage war on the West.”

Lake writes that officials don’t consider the situation in Libya to be as much of a terrorist threat as Syria, “But Libya is nonetheless intricately involved in funneling fighters into Syria, and its lawless regions provide an ideal haven for al Qaeda affiliates and fellow travelers.” Those who believe this was inevitable are underestimating American capabilities, but that is still miles ahead of the “it’s none of our business” chorus, who look positively ridiculous at this point.

Aside from security threats, there’s the not-inconsiderable matter of global health. As Bloomberg reports, the conflicts in Syria and elsewhere are enabling polio to make a comeback, and spread:

The spread of polio to countries previously considered free of the crippling disease is a global health emergency, the World Health Organization said, as the virus once driven to the brink of extinction mounts a comeback. …

The disease’s spread, if unchecked, “could result in failure to eradicate globally one of the world’s most serious, vaccine-preventable diseases,” Bruce Aylward, the WHO’s assistant director general for polio, emergencies and country collaboration, told reporters in Geneva today. “The consequences of further international spread are particularly acute today given the large number of polio-free but conflict-torn and fragile states which have severely compromised routine immunization services.”

To their credit, humanitarian interventionists argued from the outset that the West had an obligation to stop the slaughter. And as is now clear for all to see, those who argued we had an interest in stopping the slaughter were right too.

Read Less

Defense Cuts Rest on Faulty Assumptions

Buried deep in this Wall Street Journal article on the future of the U.S. Army is this dismaying revelation: “Defense officials said the Army must shrink by an additional 100,000 soldiers if the across-the-board cuts remain, bringing the service to 390,000.”

Let’s put that figure into perspective. The army shrank by roughly a third after the end of the Cold War–from 730,000 active-duty personnel in 1990 to 491,000 in 1996. That was grossly inadequate to deal with the challenges of the post-9/11 world (or arguably the pre-9/11 world either), and so over the past decade the army slowly grew, reaching a peak strength of 557,000 in early 2012. A year later the army is down to 541,000 and shrinking fast.

Read More

Buried deep in this Wall Street Journal article on the future of the U.S. Army is this dismaying revelation: “Defense officials said the Army must shrink by an additional 100,000 soldiers if the across-the-board cuts remain, bringing the service to 390,000.”

Let’s put that figure into perspective. The army shrank by roughly a third after the end of the Cold War–from 730,000 active-duty personnel in 1990 to 491,000 in 1996. That was grossly inadequate to deal with the challenges of the post-9/11 world (or arguably the pre-9/11 world either), and so over the past decade the army slowly grew, reaching a peak strength of 557,000 in early 2012. A year later the army is down to 541,000 and shrinking fast.

The plan had been, because of half a trillion dollars in defense budget cuts mandated by Congress in 2011, to cut army end-strength down to 490,000–i.e. roughly the pre-9/11 level. But sequestration has added another half-trillion dollars in cuts which, if not rescinded, will result in an army of 390,000–the smallest level since before World War II.

Such drastic cuts only make sense if you assume–as the Obama administration and many on Capitol Hill seem to–that we will never fight another major ground war in the future or that if we do we will have plenty of time to mobilize and train reservists and new recruits. Neither assumption is historically warranted.

First, wars today do not take place after an elaborate mobilization; more often they arrive out of the blue, as the post-9/11 conflict in Afghanistan did.

Second, despite our aversion to fighting more wars after Iraq and Afghanistan, there are still plenty of places where it is easy to imagine American combat troops being sent–in fact just about anywhere in the giant arc of instability stretching from West Africa to Central Asia, in other words from Mali to Pakistan. That region is full of dangerous regimes and non-state actors and it is growing more unstable, not less. The danger to the U.S. is heightened by the fact that one country in that area (Pakistan) already has nuclear weapons, another is close to acquiring them (Iran), and others (Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia) may yet follow suit.

Sending large numbers of U.S. grounds is not anyone’s preferred solution to the dangers emanating from this area–but even in a best-case scenario we will have to continue providing substantial security assistance and Special Operations missions to keep the threat under control. The worst-case scenarios (e.g., war with Iran, another 9/11 emanating from Pakistan) could, in fact, dictate large-scale ground deployments.

No matter how much we hate the idea of another major war, especially on the ground, prudence suggests we need to have the capability to fight and win–and the only way to achieve decisive results (i.e., change of regime) is through ground action. Ground troops can sometimes be provided by allies, such as the Libyan rebels, to complement American airpower, but we cannot rule out the possibility that in the future U.S. ground forces will have to be deployed.

It is the height of folly to cut our ground forces so much–and to degrade their readiness so markedly–that they will no longer be able to deploy in sufficient strength to win future wars. But that is precisely what we are now doing.

Read Less

More Consequences of Leading from Behind in Libya

The evidence of the baleful effects of the Obama administration’s shameful neglect of post-Gaddafi Libya continues to pile up.

We already know that by failing to help the pro-Western government to establish control of its country, we not only created the conditions which led to the death of our ambassador and other Americans last September 11 but also destabilized neighboring countries. The outflow of arms and fighters from Libya tipped the balance of power in Mali and allowed al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to seize control of the northern part of the country until a French intervention dislodged them (perhaps only temporarily).

Read More

The evidence of the baleful effects of the Obama administration’s shameful neglect of post-Gaddafi Libya continues to pile up.

We already know that by failing to help the pro-Western government to establish control of its country, we not only created the conditions which led to the death of our ambassador and other Americans last September 11 but also destabilized neighboring countries. The outflow of arms and fighters from Libya tipped the balance of power in Mali and allowed al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to seize control of the northern part of the country until a French intervention dislodged them (perhaps only temporarily).

As soon as the Islamists established their authority in northern Mali, they set up training camps where militants from all over the region flocked. Now we are seeing the consequences in Nigeria. The Wall Street Journal reports that as many as several hundred Boko Haram members from Nigeria trained in Mali on the use of rocket-propelled grenades, which they are now employing for the first time in their homeland: “Militants used shoulder-fired grenades against soldiers in the mud-brick town of Baga on Friday night and Saturday, officials said, in fighting that was believed to mark the first major use of rocket-propelled grenades by the group, Boko Haram.”

There are two obvious lessons to be drawn: First, we need to do more to stabilize countries such as Libya after a transfer of power. Second, we can’t afford to ignore Islamist attempts to take over territory in North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. If successful, they will surely export terrorism elsewhere.

This is a particularly important lesson to keep in mind as the administration debates how many troops to leave in Afghanistan post-2014. Those who argue for minimal or no commitment at all suggest we have nothing to fear from a Taliban takeover because it will have no impact beyond Afghanistan itself. The history of 9/11–and, more recently, the experience of Libya and Mali–suggests otherwise.

Read Less

AQIM Attack in Algeria Only the Beginning

After last month’s Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) seizure of a British Petroleum facility in Algeria culminated in a botched rescue and the deaths of scores of hostages, the international media focused its attention elsewhere.

It will be a fateful mistake, however, to see the size and the scope of the AQIM assault on the In Amenas facility as an exception rather than the beginning of a new rule. According to reports out of Algeria yesterday, a band of 50 heavily-armed men attacked an Algerian army barracks. According to France 24:

Read More

After last month’s Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) seizure of a British Petroleum facility in Algeria culminated in a botched rescue and the deaths of scores of hostages, the international media focused its attention elsewhere.

It will be a fateful mistake, however, to see the size and the scope of the AQIM assault on the In Amenas facility as an exception rather than the beginning of a new rule. According to reports out of Algeria yesterday, a band of 50 heavily-armed men attacked an Algerian army barracks. According to France 24:

The weapons included RPGs that had come out of Libya, the newspaper said, adding that many of the attackers were Tunisian and Libyan. The assault began when a lorry delivering food to the barracks was hi-jacked, filled with weapons and used to force a way into the installation, while a second group opened fire in a diversionary attack. The fire-fight lasted three hours. The Algerian military used warplanes, attack helicopters and artillery to beat off the attack, according to the report.

The death of Osama Bin Laden effectively put an expiration date upon all the intelligence that was seized in his compound. The Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency did a good job of exploiting that intelligence to the fullest, but we are once again fighting blind. Ayman Zawahiri may have officially succeeded bin Laden, but all the al-Qaeda franchises are now, effectively, competing for leadership by staging spectacular attacks. AQIM—spanning seven countries and with a drug running network spanning from southern Europe to Mozambique—is certainly making its claim to be the top franchise.

The question is how long it will take the United States to recognize that it cannot simply afford to stand on the sidelines with groups which are sworn to seek America’s demise. If there is one lesson we should learn from the Clinton years, it is that we pay a great price for allowing terrorists to metastasize while we flail around for a strategy. Does that mean direct, on-the-ground military intervention in the Sahel? Absolutely not. But does it mean that we should use all power at our disposal not to allow AQIM leaders to sleep in the same location for more than a night while we try to pick them off? Absolutely. The French have intervened. Let’s hope that in a second-term Obama administration, with John Kerry as secretary of state and perhaps Chuck Hagel as defense secretary, we have not become the “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.”  The costs of inaction would simply be too great.

Read Less

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!”

Read More

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.

Read Less

Obama Flunks Mali’s Lesson

After criticizing French plans to counter Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists in northern Mali, the Obama administration is slowly increasing its support to the French, as the French military conducts a mission vital to U.S. interests as well as their own.

Mali is a beautiful country, one which I visited as a tourist a decade ago. (My thoughts from the time are encapsulated in this New Republic article). It was also the Muslim majority country which Freedom House had, for years, rated as most free. Despite being one of the poorest countries on earth and democratic, Mali was for years ignored by the United States.

Read More

After criticizing French plans to counter Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists in northern Mali, the Obama administration is slowly increasing its support to the French, as the French military conducts a mission vital to U.S. interests as well as their own.

Mali is a beautiful country, one which I visited as a tourist a decade ago. (My thoughts from the time are encapsulated in this New Republic article). It was also the Muslim majority country which Freedom House had, for years, rated as most free. Despite being one of the poorest countries on earth and democratic, Mali was for years ignored by the United States.

Only with last year’s coup—and the acceleration of insurgency fueled by loose weapons from Libya—has Mali come to America’s strategic notice. Simply put, with the consolidation of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s presence in northern Mali, officials on both sides of the Atlantic recognize the danger of a vacuum.

Obama may congratulate himself on once again leading from behind, but his actions on Mali only highlight the fact that the president does not understand—or care—that far from resolving the problem, he is on the verge of making it worse. Perhaps France, in conjunction with contingents from some neighboring West African states, will contain the problems in Mali, but Obama does not recognize that by creating a vacuum in Afghanistan, he will be setting the stage for further Al Qaeda empowerment. No one will be able to rely on neighboring states when those states are Iran and Pakistan. And while India should take a greater regional role, it is too inward looking—and the logistical hurdles too great for landlocked Afghanistan—for it to take the actions it should to help buttress Afghanistan.

With the United States abdicating its international responsibilities so that Obama can claim to be true to his own political schedule, the question is not who will fill the vacuum Obama helps to create in Afghanistan, but rather who will be the victims of Al Qaeda’s return to Afghanistan.

Read Less

Radical Islamists vs. the People of Mali

Law professor Karima Bennoune has an important op-ed in the New York Times today that should be required reading for all those who think that Muslims are somehow different from “you and me” and actually enjoy living under a tyrannical regime as long as its diktats are justified by a twisted reading of Sharia law. Based on her interviews with Malians fleeing the Islamists who have taken over the northern part of the country, Bennoune shows it just isn’t so–tyranny is unpopular no matter how it is packaged and justified. As she notes:

First, the fundamentalists banned music in a country with one of the richest musical traditions in the world. Last July, they stoned an unmarried couple for adultery. The woman, a mother of two, had been buried up to her waist in a hole before a group of men pelted her to death with rocks. And in October the Islamist occupiers began compiling lists of unmarried mothers.

Even holy places are not safe. These self-styled “defenders of the faith” demolished the tombs of local Sufi saints in the fabled city of Timbuktu.

Read More

Law professor Karima Bennoune has an important op-ed in the New York Times today that should be required reading for all those who think that Muslims are somehow different from “you and me” and actually enjoy living under a tyrannical regime as long as its diktats are justified by a twisted reading of Sharia law. Based on her interviews with Malians fleeing the Islamists who have taken over the northern part of the country, Bennoune shows it just isn’t so–tyranny is unpopular no matter how it is packaged and justified. As she notes:

First, the fundamentalists banned music in a country with one of the richest musical traditions in the world. Last July, they stoned an unmarried couple for adultery. The woman, a mother of two, had been buried up to her waist in a hole before a group of men pelted her to death with rocks. And in October the Islamist occupiers began compiling lists of unmarried mothers.

Even holy places are not safe. These self-styled “defenders of the faith” demolished the tombs of local Sufi saints in the fabled city of Timbuktu.

Such draconian decrees are hardly popular with ordinary Malians who practice a tolerant brand of Islam. Bennoune quotes the acting principal of a coed high school “who had been attending public punishments to document the atrocities. This meant repeatedly watching his fellow citizens get flogged. He has seen what it looks like when a ‘convict’ has his foot sawed off. Close to tears, he said: ‘No one can stand it, but it is imposed on us. Those of us who attend, we cry.’ ”

Such sentiments are hardly surprising to anyone who has ever visited Afghanistan or Iraq’s Anbar Province–two more places where a harsh brand of Salafism was once imposed at gunpoint. In both places the people turned against the self-proclaimed religious enforcers of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Iraq, respectively. Now in Mali they are happy to turn against Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other groups, provided the French army protects them from the terrorists’ retribution.

The only way that such extremists can gain power is at gunpoint–something that is unfortunately easy to do in countries such as post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, post-Taliban Afghanistan, and post-coup Mali where the security services are weak to nonexistent and social order is breaking down. In such circumstances Islamists can at least claim that they are restoring law and order. But when the people see what their “law and order” consists of, they invariably recoil and pray that someone will rescue them from these theocratic tyrants.

Read Less

In Mali, Stand with the French

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent much of Wednesday being grilled on Capitol Hill about the conditions which led to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. As John McCain, among others, pointed out, the chaos which prevailed in Libya was not inevitable; it was due in no small part to the administration’s failure to do more to support state-building after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in an American-supported insurgency.

The failure to follow up has destabilized not only Libya but also nearby countries such as Mali, where the French have felt compelled to rush into the vacuum to prevent Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and associated extremist organizations from consolidating their hold on the northern part of the country and even marching on the capital. What’s truly odd is how reluctant the administration is to help the French, even though they are on the front lines of our common battle against jihadism.

Read More

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent much of Wednesday being grilled on Capitol Hill about the conditions which led to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. As John McCain, among others, pointed out, the chaos which prevailed in Libya was not inevitable; it was due in no small part to the administration’s failure to do more to support state-building after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in an American-supported insurgency.

The failure to follow up has destabilized not only Libya but also nearby countries such as Mali, where the French have felt compelled to rush into the vacuum to prevent Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and associated extremist organizations from consolidating their hold on the northern part of the country and even marching on the capital. What’s truly odd is how reluctant the administration is to help the French, even though they are on the front lines of our common battle against jihadism.

The administration has finally agreed to airlift a French battalion into the fight but is still holding off on a French request for aerial refueling. The reason for the administration’s reluctance is truly bizarre: According to the New York Times, “A French official, speaking on ground rules of anonymity to describe bilateral discussions, said some officials in Washington were concerned that assigning American tanker planes to refuel French warplanes bombing Islamist militant targets in Mali might make the United States appear as a co-belligerent in the conflict. Even if that view was not supported under international law, it could be the perception across the Muslim world.”

If accurate, this would suggest that “some officials in Washington” are worried that by fighting terrorists we ourselves will become a target for terrorism. Earth to Washington: the jihadists already hate us and are already doing everything possible to do us harm.

Americans, after all, were just killed along with the citizens of other countries in the hostage-taking at a gas plant in Algeria. It seems a little far-fetched at this late date to imagine that we might propitiate the extremists by not fighting them too hard. Actually, if we abstain from the fight, the most likely result is that the Islamists will be able to consolidate their gains in Mali and then turn Mali into a base for terrorism against Western interests—including American interests.

The French may not always stand with us, but in the present instance we must stand with the French and not imagine that we can somehow get out of the line of fire.

Read Less

Conflict in Mali Just Getting Started

Mali is getting even more deeply enmeshed in a guerrilla war pitting Islamist insurgents against French troops and their African allies. The latest developments include reports that, following air strikes, French troops are involved in their first ground combat. Rather predictably, despite their blood-curdling rhetoric–one fighter with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb told a Western reporter, “Even if they come at us with nuclear bombs, we will defend the terrain. This is going to be worse than Afghanistan!”–the rebel fighters generally prefer to melt away rather than confront far better-armed and better-trained French forces.

This is straight out of the Guerrilla 101 playbook. As Mao Zedong famously counseled: “The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue.”

Read More

Mali is getting even more deeply enmeshed in a guerrilla war pitting Islamist insurgents against French troops and their African allies. The latest developments include reports that, following air strikes, French troops are involved in their first ground combat. Rather predictably, despite their blood-curdling rhetoric–one fighter with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb told a Western reporter, “Even if they come at us with nuclear bombs, we will defend the terrain. This is going to be worse than Afghanistan!”–the rebel fighters generally prefer to melt away rather than confront far better-armed and better-trained French forces.

This is straight out of the Guerrilla 101 playbook. As Mao Zedong famously counseled: “The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue.”

While waiting for the enemy–in this case the French–to tire, the insurgents are striking out in other directions against easier targets. Thus they ventured into Algeria to kidnap foreign oil workers, including American, British and French citizens. While this kidnapping operation has already made a media splash, it is a miscalculation on the insurgents’ part.

For a start, it only reinforces the general perception throughout Africa and the West that the rebel fighters are savages who must be resisted, while doing little to undermine the French will to stay on the offensive. More significantly, this criminal act risks widening the number of enemies the rebels must face. By violating Algerian sovereignty, the Malian Islamists risk drawing into the conflict against them the Algerian armed forces, which repressed an Islamist uprising on their own soil in the 1990s with considerable brutality and effectiveness. And by kidnapping Americans, they could well lead to the deployment of U.S. Special Operations Forces to rescue the hostages and assist the French. Thus the rebels have actually handed a gift to their enemies.

That does not mean, however, that the campaign will finish anytime soon. It is one thing for the French to take a few towns out of rebel hands. Altogether more difficult will be securing the countryside and preventing the rebels from regaining control of the urban areas as soon as the French troops leave. As I note in my new book Invisible Armies, the average insurgency since 1945 has lasted nearly 10 years. The conflict in Mali, whatever the outcome of the battles currently being waged, has a long way yet to run.

Read Less

France Takes the Lead in Mali

Vive la France.

What else can one say to the news that the French are using their military might to push back al-Qaeda-linked Islamist rebels who have taken control of northern Mali–a vast region bigger than France itself? While the United Nations passed toothless resolutions and the U.S. expressed concern but did nothing, France’s President, Francois Hollande, acted. He has dispatched some 400 troops backed by helicopter gunships and fighter aircraft to stop the rebel advance, which threatened to engulf the part of Mali still held by the ramshackle government. The U.S., UK, and other allies are providing non-lethal assistance, but it is very much a French show.

This could well be a harbinger of things to come: Given the “lead from behind” doctrine that animates the current American administration, and the declining defense capabilities of Britain, France may well be left as the Western power on the front lines of the fight against Islamist extremism. This move is certainly in keeping with France’s traditionally activist role in its former African colonies–something that Hollande promised to abandon but now seems to be embracing.

Read More

Vive la France.

What else can one say to the news that the French are using their military might to push back al-Qaeda-linked Islamist rebels who have taken control of northern Mali–a vast region bigger than France itself? While the United Nations passed toothless resolutions and the U.S. expressed concern but did nothing, France’s President, Francois Hollande, acted. He has dispatched some 400 troops backed by helicopter gunships and fighter aircraft to stop the rebel advance, which threatened to engulf the part of Mali still held by the ramshackle government. The U.S., UK, and other allies are providing non-lethal assistance, but it is very much a French show.

This could well be a harbinger of things to come: Given the “lead from behind” doctrine that animates the current American administration, and the declining defense capabilities of Britain, France may well be left as the Western power on the front lines of the fight against Islamist extremism. This move is certainly in keeping with France’s traditionally activist role in its former African colonies–something that Hollande promised to abandon but now seems to be embracing.

There are, however, sharp limits to French capabilities, which is why France is not intervening in Syria, much as it would like to: Bashar Assad’s regime is still powerful enough that it would require an American lead to take on its air defenses. France also lacks surveillance, airlift, and aerial refueling capabilities, all of which are being provided in Mali by the U.S., UK, and other European states.

Important as the French intervention is to block further advances by Malian extremists, France will find it harder to exit than to enter this conflict. Air strikes and the like can temporarily stymie a powerful army of guerrilla fighters but cannot defeat it. That requires boots on the ground for a prolonged period of time to reestablish control.

In Mali, the French hope that force will be provided by Ecowas, the Economic Community of West African States, which is moving up plans to deploy 2,000 peacekeepers. However, given the woeful historic performance of African peacekeeping forces in countries such as Somalia, it is clear that Ecowas, to be effective, will require considerable buttressing from France and other Western states for some time to come. France will also have to work with the U.S. and other states to train up and arm the ineffective armed forces of Mali itself–and to somehow avoid the fiasco of the last training program, run by the U.S., which resulted in units defecting to the Islamists and others overthrowing Mali’s elected leader.

That is undeniably a burden, and one that France would understandably prefer to avoid. But given the alternative–allowing al-Qaeda affiliates to gain control of a major African country–a long-term commitment would appear to be the lesser evil here.

Read Less

U.S. Can’t Afford to be Out of Africa

There hasn’t much foreign policy discussion this election season, either in the Republican primaries or in the general election campaign. Certainly, there has been some lip service paid to Iran, but it is like pulling teeth to get either candidate to talk about Afghanistan, let alone any other country.

If there are two lessons policymakers across the aisle should learn from the pre-9/11 era, it is that problems ignored do not go away, and that no matter how remote a security vacuum is, it can still pose a threat to American national security.

It is time both the Obama administration and Romney’s foreign policy team take Africa seriously. Over the past four years, security has declined significantly across a continent too often forgotten in Washington’s policy debate.

Read More

There hasn’t much foreign policy discussion this election season, either in the Republican primaries or in the general election campaign. Certainly, there has been some lip service paid to Iran, but it is like pulling teeth to get either candidate to talk about Afghanistan, let alone any other country.

If there are two lessons policymakers across the aisle should learn from the pre-9/11 era, it is that problems ignored do not go away, and that no matter how remote a security vacuum is, it can still pose a threat to American national security.

It is time both the Obama administration and Romney’s foreign policy team take Africa seriously. Over the past four years, security has declined significantly across a continent too often forgotten in Washington’s policy debate.

Take, for example:

  • Mali: Once labeled by Freedom House to be the most democratic, Muslim-majority country, a  March coup enabled Islamists and Taureg separatists to seize control over the Saharan north of the country. Not surprisingly, the alliance between Tuareg and Islamists did not last, and Islamists consolidated control, implementing strict Islamic law and destroying UNESCO world heritage sites. Northern Mali now threatens to become a safe-haven for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The group which profits from drug smuggling networks as far south as Mozambique now has not only the material but also the territory to plot something bigger than beheading French tourists, all the more so since they seem to have taken possession of much of Muammar Qadhafi’s loose weaponry.
  • Nigeria: The seventh-most populous country on earth is also one of Africa’s most diverse. While counter-terror experts once celebrated the demise of al-Qaeda’s short-lived Nigerian affiliate, the rapid growth of the violent Boko Haram jihadist group should concern just about everyone. Boko Haram’s slaughter of Christians threatens to take sectarian violence to a new level. The spread of jihadism into Nigeria’s urban slums, let alone state failure, would also have profound repercussions.
  • Somalia has actually been somewhat of a good news story in recent months, although if there’s one lesson from recent Somali history, it is that no one should take positive security trends for granted in the Horn of Africa.

We can chase Joseph Kony around Africa’s Great Lakes region, and his capture or killing would strike a blow for human rights. But, while it’s all well and good to pursue a humanitarian policy, the White House should never forget those areas that could pose a growing threat to American national security. Radical Islamism and state failure is never a good mix. There is no easy answer about what to do in Mali, Nigeria, and Somalia, but failing to have a conversation is policy malpractice.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.