Abraham Lincoln referred to the "terrible arithmetic" that it would take for the Union to win the civil war, meaning that the greater number of soldiers supported by the more advanced economy would eventually wear the Confederates down, though at great cost in human life. As recently as the Second World War and Korea, armies were organized by nation states led by governments. If you killed a sufficient number of enemy soldiers you eventually would win and the enemy government would surrender, producing closure and ending the war.
Guerrilla warfare has been a recognized tactic since the Napoleonic wars in Spain, hence its name, but although extremely effective it has always been considered somewhat unacceptable, precisely because it enabled undisciplined players who were not subject to rigid state control to challenge more powerful opponents and thereby establish a dangerous precedent for all governments. But since Korea the guerrilla and more recently the terrorist have together become the new normal in warfare, quite possibly in recognition of the fact that there are relatively few governments remaining that have the resources or will to go to war in a conventional way. Weaker nations and even non-governmental groups realize that they cannot confront a powerful adversary and go one-to-one because they would eventually lose so they adopt tactics enabling them to fight asymmetrically. The Viet Cong were successful in Indochina using such tactics, though they eventually required the intervention of regular army units to finish the job, while lightly armed insurgents have driven the Soviets and soon also NATO out of Afghanistan. Insurgencies have destabilized both Libya and Syria while Israel was forced to abandon southern Lebanon by Hezbollah.
For an established government, dealing with an internal insurgency or a terrorism problem is of necessity a complicated process involving not only police and intelligence operations but also separating the dissidents from their political and economic support. For a government like the United States, which has an insignificant domestic insurgency problem but which believes itself to have interests worldwide, the question becomes how to identify genuine interests versus transient problems and how to deal with them in a resource effective way without increasing instability. It is the failure to understand that heavy handed intervention itself creates new problems has been the central failure of American policy makers ever since 9/11, witness the debacles in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan. Blowback is the intelligence term used to describe the development of a new and larger problem due to a military or political action that is not carefully considered.
In order to avoid making a mistake, Washington inevitably and automatically magnifies every hiccup internationally into a threat, mobilizing massive resources that lead to the proverbial flea being smashed with a sledge hammer. That there is some kind of existential threat resulting from international terrorism is pretty much a myth. There are lethal insurgencies and terrorist groups to be sure but most have strictly local agendas and nearly all are being hunted and hounded successfully by every police and intelligence agency in the world. Terrorists ready, willing, and, most important, able to travel to Europe or the United States and successfully undertake a terrorist action are few, which means that the United States alone is spending some hundreds of billions of dollars to counter at most a handful of extremists.
Which brings us to the alleged terrorist threat in Africa in general and to Mali in particular, which might well be considered a case study of how non-traditional military engagement driven by interventionist policies can develop willy-nilly when some bad choices are made. What kind of terrorist threat does Mali actually represent and how did the current situation come about? The seizure of northern Mali by what has been described as Islamists affiliated to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is rooted in three elements coming together. The first is the presence of frequently nomadic Tuareg tribesmen, the original pre-Arab North Africans who constitute an ethnic minority across much of the Sahara region and who generally believe themselves to be treated poorly by the local governments. Second is the arrival on the scene of increasing numbers of Islamic militants who had been driven out of their usual bases in the Sahara region and the Horn of Africa. Third is a major influx of weapons from Libya in the wake of the overthrow of Colonel Moammar Gaddafi together with the arrival of unemployed Tuareg and other African mercenaries previously paid by the Libyan regime who knew how to use them. Bringing all three together, the Tuaregs saw their opportunity to establish an autonomous state in Mali, suddenly had the weapons to do so, and had a powerful and well organized ally in the form of Islamists. The Malian Army, being trained by the US Army’s African Command, did what all unmotivated friends of Washington normally do: many deserted to join the insurgents, taking their weapons with them. In the ensuing mess, the better organized Islamists wound up on top.
Well, so what? The administration blundered in supporting the ouster of Gaddafi without considering what consequences would arise from the destruction of a regime that was, for better or worse, a source of stability for the entire region. Libya is now largely ungovernable. The White House now says that al-Qaeda is establishing itself in North Africa with Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey declaring "That it is a threat not only to the country of Mali, but the region, and if left unaddressed, could in fact become a global threat." This view was echoed by Representative Mike Rogers of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, who said on Sunday that "They are growing more dangerous. They are growing in numbers." And the preferred AQIM narrative fits neatly into the developments in Algeria, where more than thirty hostages were killed in the takeover of a gas production facility shortly after the French intervened in Mali.
But there are huge holes in the argument. The group that carried out the Algerian attack, the Signatories in Blood Brigade, headed by one-eyed Mokhtar Belmokhtar, had reportedly broken with AQIM some weeks before and was renowned not for its piety but for its ability to carry out extortion and kidnapping, including of fellow Muslims. There are indications that the group, which staged its attack from Libya, was seeking money in exchange for the foreign hostages rather than martyrdom. The involvement of two Canadian citizens of North African ancestry will no doubt be exploited to generate fear but has no particular significance and does not automatically suggest that there are plans to carry out jihad in North America.
It is an all too typical situation wrapped in Washington’s ignorance that is just waiting to become the next crisis. The White House knows almost nothing about the militants in Mali and even less about what happened in Algeria. General Carter Ham, who heads the Army’s Stuttgart-based Africa Command, admits that it is difficult to get reliable intelligence about what he perhaps conveniently refers to as the terrorist "safe haven" in Mali. The New York Times notes that Washington has only an "impressionistic understanding" of the militants involved. The perceived wisdom mandating the suppression of insurgencies everywhere coupled with the belief that all militancies tend to metastasize creates a U.S. interest in Africa that might not be credible. The fall of Timbuktu to extremists who have a local agenda does not actually threaten the United States and the ability of such groups to strike the U.S. is nil, so one might well plausibly decide that Washington has no real interest in Mali at all. Based on the performance of the Malian Army, one would also have to conclude that Africa Command is possibly not worth the time, money, and effort that is being committed to it in support of an agenda that continues to be somewhat opaque.
But neither a reality check regarding the actual nature of the threat, the genuine policy options, or the absurdity of a four star General sitting in Stuttgart presiding over an Africa Command will really make any difference, one suspects. There are a lot of badass special ops dudes over at CIA and in the Defense Department who are raring to go coupled with enough voices in the White House who favor humanitarian intervention to make it all happen, so the U.S. will likely soon be fully engaged in Africa even though it doesn’t know what is going on and has no vital interests. Just watch it happen.