Anatomy of a Mali Intervention

Gauging U.S. military policy — at least on a meta level — isn’t as hard as it looks, as long as you remember a few general axioms: like, what seems to be true today, will almost certainly change tomorrow, and never, ever listen to a four-star commander when he says “direct U.S. intervention is unlikely.”

No less than 45 days ago, we reported in this space that Army Gen. Carter F. Ham, head of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), had told a gaggle of foreign reporters on Sept. 30 that while it was imperative the ousted government in Mali he “re-established,” and that there would “likely be some military component” in achieving that goal, “the one course of action that we are not considering is U.S. boots on the ground in Mali.”

Well, we were skeptical, mostly because Ham and his cohorts at the State Department, for all their talk about “political” and “diplomatic” solutions and “African-led” military assistance to Mali, were dropping the AQ bomb right into the equation: Al Qaeda — Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), that is. Right now, they are the biggest boogeyman in North Africa. Thanks to the weapons we flooded into Libya to carry out that intervention, AQIM helped Islamist Rebels of the Ansar Dine take over northern Mali, including the city of Timbuktu, after Tuareg rebels threw out the Mali government in a coup last March.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a recent visit to Algeria, where she discussed how to oust Al Qaeda-linked rebels from Mali.

Employing the first axiom: it was true then, or at least seemingly, that the U.S. wanted someone else to take care of the Mali mess. The French having been a colonial power in the region, was certainly pressuring the United Nations and the U.S. to get involved. But then, as always, the tone and language shifted. In a series of seemingly separate stories last week, it’s become evident we are going to become very involved in a counter-offensive in Mali, and quite directly, too (employing the second axiom). Not only that, but Mali is in part being used to justify a broader new counter-terror war in Africa, one beyond the current one.

“Mali, a sad, endless stretch of parched desert would normally excite no one in the U.S.,” pointed out Ret. Army Col. Doug Macgregor, a tireless critic of military overreach. “However, the alleged presence of AQ elements and their capacity to exploit the presence of any mineral resources or oil is too tempting for the Inside the Beltway, neo-Wilsonian elite to pass up.”

Let’s see how we got there. First, on Thursday Nov. 29, Alan Boswell of McClatchy Newspapers reported that the build-up of a military coalition among African neighbors to take back the democratic government in Mali has been pathetic at best, with only some 3,300 African troops — if that — pledged so far. According to a report issued that week to the U.N Security Council, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said, “Northern Mali is at risk of becoming a permanent haven for terrorists and organized criminal networks where people are subjected to a very strict interpretation of Sharia law and human rights are abused on a systematic basis.”

However, he acknowledged attempts to pull together a regional army under the banner of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) might take a year or more. Boswell’s story also pointed out that U.S. officials have been “bearish” about the “prospects of intervention” for months,” saying it was “ill-advised and not feasible.” But then he added:

That attitude has gradually shifted, with Army Gen. Carter Ham, the commander of U.S. Africa Command, telling the London-based research center Chatham House last week that although the African intervention plan needed more work, its framework was sound.

Then things got infinitely more interesting. Less than four days after Boswell’s report, Gen. Ham was in Washington, making the rounds. He stopped in for a speech at George Washington University, where he was hosted, of all places, by the school’s Homeland Security Policy Institute, which we might as well just call an appendage of the national security state. The center is run by tightly-wound Frank Ciluffo, who has built quite a career on Washington’s homeland security enterprise, and would never, ever concede that the War on Terror may someday come to an end. He gets so excited by the prospect of new threats to buoy his franchise he says things like this while on stage with Gen. Ham:

[Y]ou’re seeing a bit of a conflation of conflict zones and synchronization of various actors, whether it’s al Shabab and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, whether it’s al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Ansar al Din in Mali, whether it’s Boko Haram that here recently was espousing jihadi objectives globally. Where do you see this going[he asks the general]? And can you confirm for us that you have seen Boko Haram coordinating and synchronizing with other affiliates?

And then of course, you have the Ansar al-Sharias popping up. As my kids would say, will the real Slim Shady, please stand up? I’m not sure exactly who is who, but you’re starting to see a convergence, and I and I think that gets lost upon people. Historically, you always saw tactical cooperation. Now, I think you’re starting to see strategic cooperation. And I’d be curious start maybe with Nigeria and Boko Haram, then maybe a little bit on al Shabab, a little bit on Ansar al Din, and try to get a sense of how we better address these, because we need networks to defeat networks, and ultimately, that’s what AFRICOM is enabling.

Gen. Ham couldn’t have asked for a better set up to make an argument for intervention. He went on to say that not only was AQIM holding northern Mali but it was also operating an illicit drug trade, an elaborate kidnap-for-ransom scheme, and other illegal trafficking. Ham added that the Boko Haram jihadi group terrorizing Nigeria may be getting training from AQIM in Mali, too, and while neither group seems to have clear designs nor ability to launch direct attacks on American soil, we shouldn’t rule that out, either.

He was sure to repeat the caveat that any military campaign to rout AQIM from Mali must “be African-led,” nearly a dozen times that day. “I think that’s the essential ingredient. Then, the rest of us who are supporting can find a way, and we will find a way, to be supportive of an African-led endeavor.”

Of course we need to know what his definition of “African-led” is. And pay no attention to the fey suggestion that the U.S. is still fishing around to “find a way to be supportive.” They’ve apparently already found it.

On Wednesday, two days after Ham’s GWU address, The Associated Press reported that military commanders were “working closely” with the African nations involved in advance of an offensive, and while any such intervention would indeed be “African-led,” the military told Senators that week that it would be “assisting” ECOWAS members, possibly by way of “training and equipment, as well as additional planning and advisers,” the AP reported. In other words, when it comes to “boots on the ground,” it’s all fungible.

Now, we know the U.S. military has been “training” partners all over Africa for some time, it’s what AFRICOM does by way of asserting its influence, buying friends, warning enemies and expanding the overall footprint across the continent. Ham appears to have no idea he sounds like the head of an imperial army when he casually talks about his extensive “travel about the continent” to 42 countries and his contemplation of all their problems he feels obligated to help resolve. No doubt “training” an African-led force against AQIM and Ansar Dine, much like our “indirect” assistance in Somalia, is on the verge if not already happening — no matter how much officials hedge — as is the flow of our weapons, supplies, intelligence and plans. This just makes it more official.

One should recall that part of the U.S.-assisted rousting of the Islamist al-Shabab in Somalia, which is suddenly being touted as a “template for Mali,” involved a semi-secret U.S. drone war against militants on Somali soil. No one has mentioned — yet — whether such firepower will be part of our “assistance” to Mali. We should not be surprised if officials drop it ever so casually into the conversation. Remember, this is all about the “drip, drip” — or the first axiom.

This is more or less evident in the ramping up of not only the urgent rhetoric coming from Washington, but the flurry of diplomatic activity and worse, the push from the military to be granted greater authority in the region as a whole.

First, the machine must get congress fully on board. Amanda J. Dory, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs, invoked the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi (which was linked to AQIM) while testifying about Mali before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Dec. 6, about the time the news broke that the U.S. would be assisting in a Mali intervention.

“Beyond the obvious threat to Mali’s citizens and its neighbors, the growing terrorist presence in Mali also threatens U.S. citizens and interests in the region, to include the ability to attack embassies and conduct kidnapping operations,” she said, adding that the DoD was actively supporting the military planning effort in Mali.

“This is very much an African-led process,” Dory insisted. “Our efforts are aimed at making our partners more capable of combating the terrorist threat in their territories, and providing better security for their people.”

Meanwhile, Sandra Irwin, writer for National Defense, wrote on Nov. 29 that U.S. Special Operations forces under U.S. Southern Command (SOCOM) would like to “take on a larger role in the training of foreign allies — an activity known in military-speak as ‘building partner capacity.’” As we’ve noted, the military under AFRICOM is already doing this quite extensively, now it seems Special Ops wants part of the action. It doesn’t matter that back in 2010, then-Gen. David Petraeus signed a secret directive sending Special Operations all over the Middle East including Africa to “gather intelligence and build ties with local forces,” they now want to be better resourced and longer-term, Irwin wrote.

“SOCOM sees Mali as a cautionary tale,” said Irwin, quoting Army Lt. Gen. John Mulholland, deputy commander of SOCOM, at the recent Defense Strategies Institute conference, who said, “we know what needs to be done with partners … but we don’t have the tools.”

Right. “The tools” aren’t guns and ammo — they have enough of that, but broader authority to operate with impunity in foreign lands. And they just might get it. Not sure if anyone noticed, but our Mali excursion just got more gas over the weekend with this front page Wall Street Journal report: “Terror Fight Shifts to Africa,” which suggests that the Obama Administration is poised to give “military counterterrorism officials” what they’ve been asking for.

The move, according to administration and congressional officials, would be aimed at allowing U.S. military operations in Mali, Nigeria, Libya and possibly other countries where militants have loose or nonexistent ties to al Qaeda’s Pakistan headquarters. Depending on the request, congressional authorization could cover the use of armed drones and special operations teams across a region larger than Iraq and Afghanistan combined, the officials said.

The new authorization would go beyond the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which has served as a blank check for every act of aggression — including targeted drone strikes in Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan and the detention and torture of terror suspects all over the world — since the 12-year Global War on Terror Began. “Some experts believe that the current authorization of force against al Qaeda may lose legal force after the Afghanistan is declared over in 2014,” says WSJ reporters Julian Barnes and Evan Perez.

So instead of reflecting on the end of an era, officials are looking for legal ways to stay locked in a permanent war state. Classic.

With the U.S. recently ending the Iraq war and trying to exit Afghanistan, the prospect of new authorization for another conflict is a “monumental decision” and shouldn’t be done lightly, said Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.

“This is the kind of thing that Americans could end up regretting; we could end up in another decade-long war if this crazy idea isn’t stopped,” Mr. Anders said.

So to see where this Mali issue is going, better yet, where our foreign policy in Africa is heading, the tea leaves aren’t difficult to read. It’s a matter of gathering the droplets of information over a short period of time, which make a puddle, and finally a wave — un-resisted really — toward more war. Mali is one wave, Africa is an ocean, and we, again, are headed out to sea.

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Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.