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US Steps up Role in Mali as French Advance

The Pentagon announced yesterday that it will, in fact, begin aiding French forces in Mali by providing US air tankers to refuel French aircraft. This announcement comes after weeks of behind-the-scenes tension between the two countries, during which Paris has criticized the US has been dragging its feet on military aid, while Washington has been reluctant to jump into a conflict in which it may be expected to foot much of the bill. Although it still isn’t clear exactly how much aid America is willing to provide, it does at least appear that the US is inching closer to a more active role in the Mali conflict. The Wall Street Journal reports:

Washington agreed to provide a limited number of cargo planes but initially balked at the request for air refueling tankers, stoking behind the scenes tensions with the French, who had expected to receive more rapid and robust U.S. military support for the Mali mission.

Before deciding whether to provide the tankers, Obama administration officials said the White House wanted to resolve concerns about the nature of the French campaign. In particular, the officials said, the White House wanted to clarify which rebel groups the French were targeting and assess whether those groups posed a threat to the U.S.

Officials said many of those concerns have been addressed.

It’s still too early to draw many conclusions about what this means for American involvement in Mali. This an important commitment but it is unlikely to make the difference between success and failure in Mali on its own. As Adam Garfinkle pointed out last week, the 2,500 French forces currently in the country are unlikely to be enough to rout the Tuareg and Al Qaeda forces without significantly more aid or sizable aid from other Western powers.

Then again, French and Malian forces have “reached the gates” of Timbuktu this morning without a struggle, suggesting that the fight may be easier than many had thought. But as we’ve seen in similar conflicts, taking the major cities is often the easy part. Holding them while fighting a large insurgency is a different story, and the Tuareg live in a vast desert region that crosses many national boundaries. This conflict is unlikely to end quickly, and if it doesn’t, the French may need considerably more help from their Western allies. It’s still not clear whether the US is willing to take that step.

And there is one other issue to think about. People often use the word “neo-colonialism” to describe the way western powers maintain economic and political control in developing countries once under direct western rule. Much of west Africa was once part of France’s colonial empire, and France to this day maintains a neo-colonial hold on much of the region. This is a very profitable relationship for French defense companies and other actors, and no French presidency is complete without juicy scandals involving French politicians and their African proteges. The French want to preserve this status quo, but they want other people to pay for it as much as possible. Whether it is the IMF covering the debts these countries run up, development aid and favorable trade treatment by the EU or the United States helping to pay for a military operation, France believes in “smart neo-colonialism” that maintains the French sphere of influence at minimal cost to Paris.

The security problem in Mali is real and its potential to affect other countries and ultimately to endanger US security by giving the most radical terrorists a safe haven makes Malian security a real concern of the United States. But Uncle Sugar needs to keep his eyes peeled and his hand on his wallet; the French agenda and the American agenda here are not the same.

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