walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: January 15, 2013
Flogging Mali

As often happens, my colleague Walter Russell Mead, with his team of intrepid assistants ever at the ready, has beaten me into print—or electrons, as the case may be—over what is going on in Mali. He takes his cue from the extraordinary story in yesterday’s New York Times. Pardon me for repeating any of Walter’s points here; I may need to do so in order to get a running start on the one or two additional insights I would like to bring.

The Times story, written by Adam Nossiter, Eric Schmitt and Mark Mazetti, and datelined Bamako, Mali, really was extraordinary, but in what has become a depressingly common way for the most part. In the twenty paragraphs that make up this news story, the word “Libya” is not mentioned until the ninth paragraph, and then only in passing along with several other countries. The word “Tuareg” is not mentioned until the fifteenth paragraph. The article is suffused with superficial contemporary description and amply populated with quotations mostly from unnamed sources, but anything about motives or interests or critical background circumstances is almost completely missing. You get a lot of “what” and “where”, and you get a tad of “who” (within which lies one real data nugget of genuine interest, of which more in a moment). But you don’t really get much “how” or “why.” Is this because the reporters have not done their homework and really have no idea where they are or what is going on around them? Or is it because that’s just not how such newspaper stories are supposed to be written anymore? I wish I knew.

The upshot is that unless a reader brings his or her own stock of knowledge to bear, he or she would never know that Mali is an extreme example of a modern state cobbled together from various ethnic and religious groups. (Look up an ethnographic map of Mali and you will see that, even by West African standards, it looks like a jigsaw puzzle.) One would never know, until a passing phrase toward the very end of the article, that the Tuareg are the main group that has been in periodic revolt against the central government for decades. One would never know that the catalyst for what has been going on in this country, as well as in neighboring Niger for many months now, was the Obama Administration’s decision to start a war in Libya. One would never know that the Tuareg are kindred to the Berbers who are rising, and raising hell, all over North Africa. One would never know that the Tuareg founded a vast empire long before the advent of European colonialism, and that their capital was then, as it is again now, Timbuktu. One would not even know from this article that the victorious Tuareg declared the independent state of Azawad in what they consider to be reclaimed, liberated territory, back in the beginning of last year.

Students have asked me frequently how it is possible to actually find out what is going on in relatively off-the-radar places like the Sahel, and I have to confess to them that, these days, with serious foreign affairs journalism having declined so dramatically in the United States since the end of the Cold War, it really is difficult. It’s virtually a day job, and one that requires knowledge of much history, anthropology and some language skills so that one can read, in this Malian case, the better-informed French press.

Speaking of full-frontal ignorance, this brings me to the only real revelation in the New York Times story—that data nugget I mentioned just above. Way down at the bottom of the piece we learn that the U.S. counterterrorism training mission in Mali made the stupefying mistake of choosing three of four northern unit commanders to train who were Tuareg. As the article says, when the Tuareg rebellion in Mali gained steam after the denouement of the Libya caper, greatly stimulated by the return of heavily armed Tuareg brethren from that fight, these three Tuareg commanders defected to the rebels, bringing soldiers, vehicles, ammunition and more to the anti-government side. Anyone who was surprised by this is an idiot, or at the very least a terminal ignoramus. And anyone in the U.S. military who failed to understand the ethnic composition of the country’s politico-military cleavages, such that he let U.S. Special Forces training be lavished on Tuareg commanders, was clearly insufficiently trained to do his job. And believe me, that’s about as nice a way to put that as I can summon.

How do things like this (still) happen, after what we should have learned from years of dealing with Iraqis and Afghans and others on their home turf? I happen to know someone who teaches in the U.S. military education system, and this person happens to be a field-experienced Harvard Ph.D. in anthropology. This person tries very hard to clear away the thick fog created by the innocent Enlightenment universalism that pervades the American mind—the toxic fog that tries to convince us that all people, everywhere, are basically the same, have the same value hierarchies, the same habits of moral and tactical judgment, and mean the same things by roughly comparable translated words.

Sometimes this person senses success, because the Special Forces officers in class who are still climbing the promotion tree tend to “get it.” They “get it” because they have collected personal experience—whether in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Somalia, or Pakistan, or the Philippines, or even in Mali—so that what they are learning in class corresponds to the realities they know. I have been to this person’s classes on several occasions to guest-teach, and I agree: A lot of the guys (and the few women in the spec ops field) who have been on the ground do “get it.” But it seems that a lot of their senior officers don’t yet get much of anything at all. It is almost inconceivable to me that we could screw-up so badly. Understanding basic Malian circumstances isn’t rocket science, as they say, so why did this get botched? I am trying to find out; so patience, please.

Alas, as useful as the Times article is for revealing this critical datum, it is misleading in other ways. Now that the election is over, Walter supposes, it’s okay for the Times to call a failed policy what it is. That’s true about the Times and the election being over, so that the paper can now switch off the political advocacy button for a while. But it obscures two things that are more important.

First, the article makes it seem as though the training missions in the Sahel area are the brainchild of the Obama Administration. This is not so. This special forces anti-terrorism training has been going on for quite a while. It certainly was going on when I was in government in the 2003–05 period. Indeed, there was a certain natural muss and fuss associated with small complements of marines going into places like Mali and Niger to train local antiterrorist special forces. I remember a certain American Ambassador (whom I will not name) in one of these places objecting strenuously to the arrival of the marines and, with them, a very few serious embedded journalists like Robert Kaplan. (Kaplan wrote about this in Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts.)

Second, not only is the policy nothing new, but it did not have to fail. Even reasonably intelligent policies that, as in this case, are designed to be hedges against worst-case developments can fail if oblivious, poorly prepared officials get their hands on implementation. (This is a good case for State Department officials helping the military rather than trying to foul their grub.) I still refuse to believe that the nitwit factor is an inevitable one in the U.S. military or in the U.S. government as a whole. And what exactly was, and is, a better reasonable alternative than training local forces? Do the Times reporters think that sending large numbers of American or allied soldiers to these countries, even in the absence of manifest threats to their governments, would have been a good idea? The article bristles with criticism, usually imported through piquant quotes that enable the reporters to distance themselves from it if challenged. But they offer nothing as substitute except implied praise for French boldness.

And this is crap. Obviously, things in Mali have come to a point where the Tuareg, in the form of a radical Islamist coup that has displaced the traditional national movement, have become capable of threatening the capital. That is the reason, one has to assume, that the French government has unleashed its air force against the rebels. The press, both here and in France, are characterizing this act of war in a former French colony as a bold step by the heretofore meek-seeming Socialist Party President François Hollande. It is no such thing, at least not yet. This was, and still is, a defensive operation cobbled together quickly to avoid catastrophe. Only if the French and their allies try to retake independent Azawad and reattach it to the Malian state—a policy for which they would very likely seek American support and specialized assistance—can the policy be said to qualify as bold.

Is that likely to happen? In Paris anything is possible, but I frankly doubt that it will. The price of success would be hard to calculate but probably quite high, since one cannot retake and hold territory just by using airpower. The price of failure would be even higher. I doubt that the French President, who has to sense the increasing fragility of the domestic economy these days, would take that on.

Hence, what’s going on in Mali is going to keep going on, in one form or another. It is likely to spread to Niger, possibly to Mauritania, too. I can barely wait for the next drive-by, nomad-journalism New York Times potshots aimed at trying to convey the shape of this burgeoning mess. Maybe one day they’ll even figure out how to connect the dots back to Libya. Maybe…

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  • Martin Berman-Gorvine

    Ha! And given all that willful ignorance and fecklessness at the high and even mid-levels of the American government, can anyone blame the Israeli government for the horse laughs they no doubt let loose at the report that Obama is saying that “Israel doesn’t understand its own best interests”? (Which is not to say that the Bibi-settlement crowd really ARE getting things right–I hold no brief for them and their blood-soil-God-and-guns mishegaas–but how dare this president, or any American president, display such arrogance?)

  • Beauceron

    Well, that was certainly a refreshing read. Thank you.

    One thing I keep wondering about that most journalists are not bringing up: how do the French think they, with 2,500 troops, and ECOWAS, with an additional 3,000, are ever going to control a land area the size of Texas? That strikes me as an absurd fantasy.

    • Adam Garfinkle

      Thank you–and you’re absolutely right.

  • gallan

    since afghanistan and iraq it’s been very clear u.s military leadership is incompetent, this is actually a long legacy stretching back to ww2, the u.s military is all brawns no brain.

  • Pave Low John

    A few comments on this growing debacle:

    1) Mali is roughly three times the size of Iraq or twice the size of Texas. In other words, it’s a big area, with not much in the way of roads or airfields (take a look at Google map and look at the international airport in Bamako. About the size of the airport in Asheville, NC, for comparison). Could you imagine controlling an area twice the size of Texas with under 3,000 troops? The French are probably using this to distract their population from their crappy domestic situation. Should be interesting to watch how the French press covers this mess.

    2) All U.S. SOF training was terminated once they had their coup last spring. I know this because my old unit, the 6th SOS, had another trip scheduled for Mali but canxed it thanks to President Foure getting pushed aside by the army. So even if USSOCOM was having a positive impact, that was almost a year ago. Once about 8 months passes without any refresher training, you can kiss goodbye to any improvements you might have made in a host nation force.

    3) Didn’t the “mainstream” press laugh at Mitt Romney for mentioning Mali during one of the presidential debates? Who’s laughing now? The American press might, by any measurement, be the worst performing segment of U.S. society. Yeah, they’re worse than the post office and Congress. Personally, I think Mitt was relieved that he doesn’t have to clean up the mess that the next four years is going to represent. Screw the American voting public, they wanted four more years of Obama, they deserve exactly what they’re going to get.

    4) Yes, the U.S. military is full of morons, from top to bottom. But why would you expect anything else? You chase away all the real soldiers with a bunch of useless social engineering and mickey mouse bullshit (mandatory briefings for diversity and homosexual relations? sure, why not, it’s not like we have a war going on or anything….) Once the quality warfighters are gone, you’re left with the idiots who know they’ll never have a better job on the outside or the martinets who enjoy mistreating their subordinates. Either way, the U.S. military is in decline. Just read the articles in Stars and Stripes or any military newspaper. Nothing but sexual scandals, suicides and commanders getting relieved.

    Thank god I retired last June, at least I was in when we still had a world-class fighting organization….

  • J Heath

    “the Tuareg founded a vast empire long before the advent of European colonialism, and that their capital was then, as it is again now, Timbuktu”

    There was never a Tuareg empire based at Timbuktu. Timbuktu was originally an important stop on the Arab caravan routes and a center of Arab learning. The only empire in the area was a Songhay empire (of sorts) in the late middle ages, with its capital in Gao. The Songhay are an 80% majority in Timbuktu, Gao, and all the other large towns near the Niger River, i.e. all of the population centers currently under rebel control except Kidal and Menaka. They are ethnically and linguistically unrelated to the Tuaregs and Arabs. Most Songhay do not support the rebels and they will likely engage in score-settling and perhaps ethnic cleansing when these cities and towns are liberated.

    The US military policy of engaging and training a few Tuareg/Arab officers of the Malian army worked OK (not great, but not disastrously) until the fall of Gaddafi, which could not have been foreseen. Once the rebellion began, led by Tuaregs returning from Libya, the Tuaregs and Arabs who had been incorporated into the Malian army, police force, etc., had no choice but to flee (as refugees) or desert. Those who remained loyal were eliminated by other Malian soldiers.

    • Adam Garfinkle

      Not so. Tuareg founded the city in the 11th century, and by the 12th and into the 13th centuries it thrived via the gold, ivory and spice trade. Great libraries and scholarship thrived. I used the term empire perhaps loosely, but the Tuareg were in charge–and that’s an empire as far as I’m concerned for those times. The Songhay Empire came later, 15th and 16th centuries. Any standard history says as much. So my statement is correct.

  • Kavanna

    “Drive-by” is about right when it comes to US journalism these days. And to think: the rest of the media slavishly follows the lazy ignoramuses at the Times.

    The French need something on the order of at least 10-20,000 ground troops to stop what’s happening in Mali. They don’t have it, nor will they get it.

  • K2K

    When will the African Union finally drop their insistence on maintaining colonial borders? Seems so archaic when the civil wars never seem to end, and yet they never stop complaining about the evils of that same colonialism.

    Do not the Tuaregs and Berbers merit self-determination? Of course they do. Somaliland should have gained UN member state status by now, yet the AU refuses to allow secession from the failed state of Somalia!

    The US used to publish Army Area Manuals (AAM), which were quite good as briefings on a nation’s history, culture, geography, etc.

    Maybe the USA should outsource counter-terror training to Algeria.

    Sorry for the randomness. Just so happy that no one is (yet) blaming Mossad for the fall of Timbuktu.

    btw, the ethno-religious map of Iran is far more fascinating: a Persian minority surrounded by non-Persians, several with non-violent aspirations to self-determination, including Kurds, Azeris, and Baluchis:

  • The Twisted One

    Dr. Garfinkle,

    You point out that “Mali is an extreme example of a modern state cobbled together from various ethnic and religious groups.” Further, K2K in comment #8 argues for reorganizing the borders to carve out homogeneous ethnostates.

    Now, I may be wrong here, but I thought that diversity was strength (multiculturalism, and all that); and that separating people on racial, ethnic, and religious lines is bad, and that borders need opened and immigration restrictions loosened to make countries less homogeneous. So why are you arguing against diversity and multiculturalism here?

    • Adam Garfinkle

      Yes, you are wrong, or twisted, depending on how you define multiculturalism. I am not arguing against diversity or multiculturalism as a general proposition, but general propositions are useless in situations like this. Multiculturalism and diversity are great in the context of liberal institutions, but when there are no such institutions one often ends in hierarchical domination, violence, protracted civil strife, even mass murder. Remember Rwanda, Darfur, Halabja, and I could go on? As a practical matter, are you going to put Mali back together so it can be diverse and multicultural? At what cost, and to whom? General feel-good abstractions are really quite pointless when you get down to cases. So your remark is not so much wrong, I suppose, as irrelevant.

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  • Michael

    Currently there seems to be a lot of enthusiasm in Southern Mali (or, in other words, Black Mali) about the French, and the French intervention, and rightly so.

    I wonder what will happen, however, when the French will NOT reconquer for the Black Malians the entire state territory. As several commenters pointed out, this is almost impossible under the current political and financial constraints.

    I have a sense that the massive outpouring of goodwill toward the French, and by extension the West as a whole, in southern Mali might then turn into massive disappointment, a sense of betrayal even. What is currently a sentiment of cultural rapprochement between Black West Africans and the West (as represented by the French) against them crazy Arabs or semi-Arabs / Berbers could then turn around because not all the Christmas gifts hoped for by the Black Malians were delivered.

    In the long run, there indeed must be an Azawad, be it as a de facto independent region inside a legal Malian shell, or as a real new state.

    The breakup of African states cannot but continue. What began in East Africa (think Eritrea, South Sudan, Somaliland) must and will, over decades, continue in other regions of the continent. The Congo obviously is a hot candidate. And in the Sahel the Darfur saga may not have come to its end once and for all.

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  • dianabuja

    Thanks for a quite refreshing perspective – a great change from the plithora of both media and blog reportings. Having worked in – and on the area, here are 2 blogs recently posted focusing on the history and another coming up.
    As in most complex situations, knowledge of the history is a critical dimension and, as you note, sadly lacking in recent reportings.

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