Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Mali: A double tale of unintended consequences

With hundreds of French troops in Mali, and hundreds more headed that way, the U.S. among other countries, has also pledged some limited support: intelligence, communication, logistics, unarmed drones. But Washington obviously would like to keep a low profile. Washington, in fact, had been militating against just such a move, fearing that another Western intervention in an Arab land would provide another ideal recruiting target for erstwhile jihadis across the Muslim world, not to mention to provoking a spate of terrorist attacks in Europe.

In fact, though, it turns out that the U.S. has already played a major role in the crisis. It’s a devastating lesson of plans gone awry, another dreary footnote to the law of unintended consequences.

According to an excellent New York Times account, for the past several years, the United States has spent more than half a billion dollars in West Africa to counter the threat of radical Islam, America’s “most ambitious counterterrorism program ever across these vast, turbulent stretches of the Sahara.”
The aim of the program was that, rather than rely on the U.S. and its allies to combat Islamic terrorism in the region, the United States would train African troops to deal with the threat themselves.
To that end, for five years U.S. Special Forces trained Malian troops in a host of vital combat and counterterrorism skills. The outcome was considered by the Pentagon to be exemplary
But all that collapsed as the result of another unintended consequence-- of the French-led intervention in Libya. After the fall of Khadhaffi, droves of battle-hardened, well-armed Islamic fighters and Tuareg tribesmen, who had been fighting in Libya, swarmed into Northern Mali.
Joined by other more radical Islamist forces, some linked to Al Qaeda, they had no trouble defeating the Malian army.
Why? Because of the defection to the rebels of several key Malian officers, who had been trained by the Americans.  Turns out that those officers, who were supposed to battle the rebels, were ethnic Tuaregs, the same nomads who were part of the rebellion.
According to the Times, The Tuareg commanders of three of the four Malian units in the north, at the height of the battle, decided to join the insurrection, taking weapons, valuable equipment and their American training with them. They were followed by about 1600 additional army defectors, demolishing the government’s hope of resisting the rebel attack.   
In other words, it’s very likely that the French and their allies-to-come in Mali will be battling rebel troops trained by the U.S. Special Forces.
Caught totally by surprise by the whole ghastly mess, the American officials involved with the training program were reportedly flabbergasted.
There are obvious questions: How was it possible for the Special Forces and their Pentagon bosses and the CIA to have had such a total lack of understanding of the Malian officers they’d trained and the country they’d been operating in for over five years?

 But you could ask that same question about U.S. military actions in any number of countries over the past few decades, from Lebanon to Iraq to Afghanistan, where the most apt  comparison might be to releasing elephants into a porcelain shop.

Which leads to a more fundamental question: how is the U.S. to avoid similar catastrophic mistakes down the road? The Pentagon has recently announced that some 3,000 troops, no longer needed in Afghanistan, have been reassigned to work with the local military in 35 countries across Africa--to deal with the threat of Al Qaeda-linked terrorism.

Sounds just like what was going on in Mali.

But does anyone really think the U.S. and its military will have a better understanding of the myriad forces, tribes, religions, governments, legal and illicit financial interests struggling for power and influence in those countries than it did in Mali?  

Or in Iraq, Or Afghanistan or Iran or Somalia or Lebanon, or Vietnam or Cambodia.

And has France now embarked down the same tragic path?


  1. Perhaps it is the French and the current press coverage that is wrong, and not the US Army training program.

    They may not be al Qaida. They may just be fed up with the abuse and neglect of ethnic outsiders. They may be like the Kurds, instead of like al Qaida.

    Maybe we were on the right side, and now the current hysteria is wrong.

    That is what I'll be looking for. It seems likely.

  2. Funny account, though tragic. If you look at the situation through the lens of realpolitik and logic it's a win-win for segments of the French and U.S. military elites. Let's be clear here, in an age of globalization nation-states are changing. Take the U.S., for example, the "national interest" is something various factions capture. The military-industrial complex has it's own agenda and that is to make money and acquire as much power as they can. One way to do that is to spread weapons around the world and encourage conflicts as much as possible. I don't believe that these separate interest groups are interested in the "national interest" in fact. Now I don't mean to say that these people necessarily all consciously believe that patriotism is a thing of the past because they couldn't handle the cognitive dissonance--rather, like most Americans, they say one thing and do another. I say this as someone who has been in and around the DC scene most of his life and I know, intimately the mind set.

    Military officials may be "flabbergasted" that the people they trained turned against them but if they are then they are irrational since it's happened both in Iraq and Afghanistan and will happen again and again. They are confused only because they spend their lives, many of them, in a permanent state of fantasy and denial. Also, many of them know very well what they are doing and are totally cynical.

  3. The present problem is a spillover from Sarkozy’s invasion of Libya and it is indeed hard to see how it can turn out any differently. It is possible, though, that what Hollande hopes is to split the country into its (very obvious from the map!) separate parts. The northern part of the country is inhabited by North Africans (Touaregs, a Berber people), whereas the south is inhabited by Black Africans. In other words, the same “fault line” that ran through Darfur runs through Mali, itself also a colonial concoction. The difference is that in Mali, the Black Africans are in the majority nationally (90%) and both groups are overwhelmingly Muslim. A border across the narrow “neck” of the country, which is the line the French seem to be trying to hold, thus makes a lot of sense. The whole idea could even have come from ECOWAS, which is modelled on the EU and maintains close relations with it.

    1. Thanks michael, very interesting perspective,

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