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NYT Calls US Anti-Terror Strategy in North Africa a Catastrophe

With the election safely behind us, the New York Times has taken a long, hard look at President Obama’s anti-terrorism policy in North Africa and called it a comprehensive failure:

… [A]s insurgents swept through the desert last year, commanders of this nation’s [Mali’s] elite army units, the fruit of years of careful American training, defected when they were needed most — taking troops, guns, trucks and their newfound skills to the enemy in the heat of battle, according to senior Malian military officials.

“It was a disaster,” said one of several senior Malian officers to confirm the defections.

Then an American-trained officer overthrew Mali’s elected government, setting the stage for more than half of the country to fall into the hands of Islamic extremists. American spy planes and surveillance drones have tried to make sense of the mess, but American officials and their allies are still scrambling even to get a detailed picture of who they are up against.

Since Obama took office the US spent almost $600 million to combat Islamic militancy across North Africa. In countries like Mali and Niger US forces trained local soldiers in counterterrorism skills. Arms and equipment were bought so local governments could protect their territories. This strategy, in theory, would protect North Africa from falling into the hands of Islamist militants—who would impose strict Sharia rule on unwilling locals and use lawless territory to launch attacks on Western targets—without involving a heavy deployment of American troops like in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That was the theory. But as heavily armed Islamist militants battle French forces in the Battle for Mali, it’s clear Obama’s strategy to help weak North African states protect themselves from terrorists has failed catastrophically.

“This has been brewing for five years,” one US special ops officer told the NYT. “The analysts got complacent in their assumptions and did not see the big changes and the impacts of them, like the big weaponry coming out of Libya and the different, more Islamic” fighters who came in from Libya.

The Times story underlines the point Via Meadia has been making for some time: the intervention in Libya set off consequences the administration neither understood nor prepared for. When NATO drove out the Great Loon, many of his Taureg mercenaries packed up and drove to Mali, taking equipment and heavy weapons with them. They resumed an old fight for independence for their historic homeland, Azawad, routing and embarrassing Malian troops. They were joined by Islamist terrorist groups like Ansar Dine and al Qaeda. Flush with cash and weapons they dug in to the hills of the Sahel, set up training camps for new militants, lopped off the hands of accused thieves, whipped women who appeared alone in public, tore down historic shrines in Timbuktu, and sent tens of thousands of panicked civilians fleeing for their lives.

The US intervened hastily in Libya and failed to prepare for the afterparty. In vulnerable Mali Washington was relying on, training, and equipping Taureg commanders who defected to the enemy at a crucial moment.

And now we have an out-of-control mess on our hands. “They have been preparing these towns to be a death trap,” Rudy Atallah, the former director of African counterterrorism policy for the Pentagon, told the Times. “If an intervention force goes in there, the militants will turn it into an insurgency war.”

Weak states like Mali are the new front line in the conflict formerly known as the global war on terror—the war many Obama administration officials say we aren’t fighting anymore. Truth is—while the US focused on Afghanistan and Pakistan, terrorists dug themselves into North Africa: a resilient new enemy popped up in a global game of whack-a-mole.

Nobody knows how things in Mali and the neighborhood will work out, and we are well aware that it is easier to criticize what the administration is doing than to come up with a fool proof alternative plan. We said this in the Bush administration and we say it now: things often go wrong in war and every president will have to cope with the consequences of mistakes. To say that the administration’s North Africa strategy (like its Afghanistan and Iraq strategies) hasn’t worked as hoped is an observation rather than an accusation.

The war on terror is a historically new though not completely unprecedented phenomenon, and given the wide variation in conditions from Afghanistan and Pakistan all the way to the Sahel it is not surprising that finding workable strategies is hard. The question isn’t whether this administration or any administration gets it right the first time or even the second; the question is whether the folks in charge learn from experience and adjust.

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