When I wrote about the situation in Mali a couple of days ago, little did I know just how much get-up-and-go this story would acquire. In just about fifty hours, from the time I left off writing on Tuesday to the present, at least five significant developments have widened the aperture of this episode—some of them because they occurred, some because certain earlier developments became public, and some because ongoing events have matured in a certain way.
Here are the five developments of the past two days that have changed the shape of what is happening in and around Mali:
- Agreement on the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) force to go into Mali.
- The announcement of an increase in French ground forces committed to the theater, and their engagement in combat.
- The revelation that the French government has requested U.S. military assistance, and the initial U.S. public reactions thereto.
- The difficulty that the Malian army has achieving even modest military objectives.
- The attack on a gas-processing plant in southern Algeria, and the taking of foreign-national hostages, a few of whom are U.S. nationals.
Let’s take these five items in turn.
The multinational ECOWAS force agreed to, after nearly a year of dithering, amounts to a mere 3,300 generally under-trained and varyingly organized soldiers. This number of troops cannot do the job, even with the help of the French Air Force and an estimated 2,500 French soldiers either already in place or on the way. While it may be politically useful to many parties to send ECOWAS troops north into combat, it is morally repugnant to put them in harm’s way under a circumstance we may summarize succinctly as follows: enough of them to die, but not enough to prevail.
It is true that all of Mali’s neighbors see a threat in the putative Tuareg/al-Qaeda menace digging in in the north of the country. But they do not have dogs of equal size in this fight. The Nigerians have a large dog, mainly because they see their own problems with Boko Haram as liable to get lots worse if northern Mali becomes an Islamist terrorism base. But the Ghanaians have no such compelling motive, which is why they agreed to send only engineers, not combat troops.
Of course, engineers do know how to die when they find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. The point, however, is that the asymmetry of the participants’ capabilities and interests, along with their different standard rules of engagement, is very liable to render the force ineffective—a lot like the ECOWAS Congo force and a little like the ISAF mess in Afghanistan. To Afghans, it was as though a kind of military theme park, festooned with colorful banners aplenty, fell out of the sky one day and landed in their country. One can only imagine what Tuareg villagers will make of assorted armed and mostly non-Muslim, black, sub-Saharan Africans wandering around their desert.
Before very long, then, the French will have to decide whether Mali is worth doing pretty much all by themselves, along with some probably very modest British and perhaps other allied help at the margins. Committing 2,500 French soldiers to the fight is not nothing, but it will take a lot more than that to prevail if ECOWAS and the Malian army both prove more or less useless.
What scale of problem are we talking about here anyway? Judging from publicly available news sources, the enemy looks small and manageable, certainly no larger in plain numbers than what the French faced, and faced down, in the Ivory Coast not that long ago. There are four groups making up what I will for the sake of simplicity call “the bad guys.” There are secular Tuareg units, two Islamist militias, and some non-Tuareg “guest fighters”, almost exclusively Arabic-speaking and associated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The Arabic-speakers seem to hail mainly from Algeria, being the residual cadres of Algeria’s civil war (now in remission), and from Libya. The total adds to around 3,000, operating in an environment unusually kind to airpower. We’re reduced virtually to guesswork at this point as to how these four groups relate to and cooperate with one another.
I don’t trust these numbers. There are about 1.2 million Tuareg living in a contiguous area that drapes over several international borders, and these are but notional borders that for the most part don’t actually exist on the ground. Even if we subtract the women, the elderly and the very young, we still have a male fighting-age population of at least 250,000. Even if only 5 percent of that number were mobilized in some way, we’d be talking about 12,500 “bad guys.” But let’s assume an even smaller number. To subdue around 5,000 rebels it would take, by standard General Templar calculation at the ten-to-one counterinsurgency ratio, about 50,000 troops. Let’s assume further that the French are super-French, so that they need only half of that: 25,000 troops. Well, folks, 2,500 is not 25,000, and 25,000 is a very large number for the contemporary French order-of-battle.
Moreover, the very best way to stimulate the swelling of Tuareg and Islamist-guest-fighter ranks is to mount a noisy, European-led intervention. There may be only 3,000 bad guys right now, but that’s right now. In another fifty hours there could be 4,000, then 7,000, then…
As to the Malian army, it has struggled mightily to recapture the town of Konna, taken last week by a small rebel force. Konna is within southern Mali, meaning that its population of about 40,000 is mostly black African, not Tuareg. It is on a main road, by Malian standards. There are military camps able to provide a logistical tail not all that far from the town. The rebel force there probably totaled no more than 300, though no one seems to know for sure, since they wear no uniforms and do not muster in groups larger than six or seven. And its aims, most likely, were not to hold the town but merely to discombobulate and complicate an expected attack northward. And still the army struggled to retake the town, even with an assist from French airpower.
In short, from a strictly military point of view, what’s going on in Mali is going to keep going on in one form or another for a while. This will not end soon. It is also fairly likely to spread to Niger, possibly to Mauritania, Burkino Faso, Chad, Algeria and back into Libya, too, where the Tuareg live. And, as I have already suggested, a serious French-led intervention in Mali may help to spread it faster. There’s nothing like an “imperialist challenge” to stimulate resistance and high morale. On the other hand, an expansion of Tuareg activism might dilute the Islamist element within it, and might make the Arabic-speaking guest fighters unpopular and unwelcome, much as occurred in Iraq.
I suggested a few days ago that the French were likely to ask the United States for “specialized assistance.” That’s the term I used to not say what I am about to say now, since it has lately become more or less common knowledge. The French need help with airlift and logistics; they need to get themselves to the theater and they need to get the ECOWAS force lifted and delivered.
I remember once—back in August 2003 I think it was—sitting with Secretary of State Colin Powell in his inner office, just the two of us, discussing some speech or something, when he broke off to take an emergency call from UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. The UN urgently needed helicopters to ferry personnel into Liberia. Annan didn’t know how many helicopters he needed or what kind, so Powell succinctly explained the logistical facts of life to him (it can be useful to have an army general as Secretary of State) and made a few suggestions about whom he might want to call next.
Lesson? These things are not simple, easy or obvious, even once the political ducks get lined up. Details don’t take care of themselves. So fine, ECOWAS agrees to do such-and-such. Now what? Now the French call us and, in effect, say, “Umm, can we borrow some planes and helicopters and stuff?”
Now, you would think that, given the situation, we here in the relevant parts of the U.S. government—NSC, DoD, State, intell—would have anticipated this request (and one other I’ll get to in a moment). I don’t know if we did or not; lately we seem to be completely reactive. From the way Defense Secretary Leon Panetta responded in public yesterday, as if he had just walked out of the dentist’s office before the nitrous oxide had worn off, it’s hard to know.
Either way, the preternaturally low-keyed U.S. response has already gotten some people wondering just what we’re thinking, or better, if we’re thinking. Are we ticked that the French went off to the fight without us, when we had counseled more “watchful waiting”? Are we leery of being dragged into an endless mess? Are we even possibly thinking, hey, why not let the Tuareg have their independent Azawad, since reconstituting Mali is neither doable at reasonable cost nor all that significant one way or the other? Nobody knows.
Aside from airlift and logistics, no doubt the French are seeking some help with targeting. We have the requisite modest presence, and we have the technology to do that. Can what we supply match up with the French aircraft flying out of Chad and Ivory Coast and other platforms to make them effective? We are just not going to talk about that here, sorry. But that’s okay because, again, this is not really a technical issue. It turns on how the Obama Administration is judging this entire problem set, and we don’t know much about that yet. The body language so far suggests an extreme reticence to get too far out in front on our skis. That may be good. But it suggests as well that no one of any senior import has taken time to think any of this through. That’s not good.
For several hours, a budding hostage “crisis” in Algeria seemed primed to force some energy to attach to the subject. But as I write, there is apparently an Algerian military attack going on at the In Amenas gas-processing plant. So far there are conflicting accounts of what is going, or has gone, down.
What matters, first, is that Algerian authorities did the right thing by not letting the situation fester and by not negotiating with the attackers. What also matters is that Algeria is in a tight spot over Mali and the Tuareg. On the one hand, the Arabs who run the country have no interest in a Tuareg redoubt in northern Mali, especially one with an Islamist tinge. But on the other, they don’t want to piss off the Tuareg in Mali, lest they ignite a similar insurrection in Algeria—of which the attack on the gas plant is a very scary portent. What the Algerians are saying, in effect, is we’re not going to come after you if you leave us alone, but if you mess with us we will show no mercy. Certainly, too—just in case anyone is trying to think so far out of the box that he falls through the floor—the idea that Algerian soldiers would ever fight along side the French in a former French colony, notwithstanding some coincidence of interests, is, well, crazy.
But the most serious question concerns the extent to which the attackers were or were not a functional part of a larger al-Qaeda network. If they were, and if Ansar al-Dine and Boko Haram and other groups on the loose in the Sahel are in effect al-Qaeda, then that’s a problem, and U.S. policy needs to be shaped one way. If these are instead weak and essentially independent groups of fanatics, that’s something else again. My guess is that we’re dealing with the latter scenario, but my mind is open to reliable intelligence suggesting otherwise. Until we reach some kind of at least halfway sensible conclusion on this point, it will not be possible to do a reasonable analysis of how high a price we should be prepared to pay to help the French in Mali, and in the broader region. If that’s among the main reasons for the Administration’s reticent posture thus far, credit is due them. But we just don’t know yet.