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.