As in the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, an aggressive France threatens to pull the United States into another brushfire, nation-building war in the developing world. This time it is in the West African state of Mali.
The French have panicked because Islamists, who earlier took over northern Mali, began to move toward southern Mali and its capital, Bamako. As the former colonial power in the country, France – ostensibly countering a threat to French citizens there – began using airstrikes from helicopters and jet fighter aircraft to halt the rebel advance and is now going on the offensive, hitting the Islamists’ forces, weapons depots, and training camps in their northern enclave. And this after France had pledged to stay out of the mess.
The aggressive action by the normally waffling French President Francois Hollande has won him much praise in the French media and among his allies African and Western allies, including the United States. The United States then rapidly pledged to step up its own efforts to help Mali’s feckless and corrupt military regain the lost territory. After all, the world’s only superpower can’t be out-machoed by a known wimp.
The United States previously had correctly warned that Western attacks on the Islamist enclave in Mali could inflame Islamic militants worldwide and lead to blowback terrorist attacks in the West. (American officials have also awakened, at least rhetorically, to this possibility emanating from U.S. meddling in Somalia, which has a sizeable population of immigrants in the United States, but strangely not from U.S. intervention in Pakistan or Yemen, from which Islamists have already attempted retaliatory terrorist strikes in the U.S.) Yet now, in a replay of the war in Libya, with France forcing its hand, the United States has been forced to back its ally’s aggressive action and even provide help. At first, this assistance will likely be intelligence, transportation, and logistics, but the U.S. could very well get involved more deeply.
That would be a really bad idea, especially given the war-weariness of the American public. Even worse, it would be likely to continue the U.S. tradition of causing its own future foreign policy headaches with the unintended consequences of prior meddling. Mali is in this current state of chaos largely because of previous U.S. and Western interventions.
Northern Mali was taken over by battle-hardened Islamists, who brought in heavy weapons from Gaddafi’s formidable stockpiles in Libya after the West’s overthrow of him. As the Islamists advanced, U.S.-trained Malian Army units defected en masse to the militants, transferring their weapons, equipment, and skills to them. The United States foolishly had trained Malian units led by generals who were Tuareg, an ethnic group that been rebelling against the Malian government for a half century. To make matters worse, because of these battlefield setbacks in the north, another U.S.-trained military man then overthrew the elected Malian government in the south.
Until France dramatically escalated the war, the West had adopted a containment strategy of encouraging neighboring African nations to sequester northern Mali until they could cobble together a force to take it back in the fall. France is now ratcheting up a war that even its own former foreign minister – Dominique de Villepin – believes will fail. Strikes by French aircraft and helicopters will kill some militants, disperse others, and recruit still more. To retake the northern territory, however, ground forces will have to be used. The insurgents will booby trap northern towns and use hit-and-run techniques, just as they did in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This conflict now has the potential to be a slippery slope for the United States. When Western air strikes are shown to be of limited effect and African ground forces likely are deemed to be ineffective against the guerrillas, pressure could very well mount for U.S. Special Forces or infantry to be used. This option should be avoided at all costs.
It is not good that Islamists have taken over northern Mali, but it is not catastrophic for the West either. Unless provoked by Western intervention, the militants’ goals are likely to be locally oriented. Prolonged provocation, however, could lead to blowback terrorism in the United States or France.