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In Mali, Guerrilla War Lurks in Shadows

“The jihadists are still in the environs,” a Malian Army commander told the NYT. “They are certainly around. There are small caches of them, in hiding, 40, 80 miles from here.”

Despite France’s quick success in pushing jihadists away from the main cities and towns in Mali, the enemy has not disappeared. They are still there, lurking in the shadows of small towns and fading anonymously into the larger urban populations. Locals in many rural towns have pledged loyalty to the Islamists’ mission, even given their sons up to be soldiers. As a local schoolteacher told the Times: “That’s the problem at Gao now; there are jihadists hiding in these villages…. These are native jihadists. And the Malian military can’t tell the difference between them and the population.”

This hints at the possibility of a prolonged guerrilla war between Malian and international troops on one side and jihadists on the other. And herein lies our strategic problem in Africa. States like Mali are too weak to maintain order on their own, so without lots of help from the West, guerrilla war could take root, and radicals could get hands-on training, organize politically, and pursue a global terrorism agenda.

Washington can’t accept that, but it also doesn’t want to be tied down in a growing series of nasty insurgencies. As we wrote yesterday:

Increasingly we are looking at a belt of instability that runs from Mali, Niger, and Nigeria in the west across to Sudan and Somalia in the east. Installing democracies, reforming corrupt governments, and promoting economic development—the typical tools of liberal foreign policy statecraft—will frankly not get much done on any quick timetable in this part of the world. Even our smartest and most peer-reviewed development PhDs have no clue what to do here, beyond collecting large salaries and consulting fees for the rest of their careers. But drone strikes and military sweeps, the preferred Jacksonian option, don’t hold out much hope either. Bombing the desert is one of life’s least rewarding military tasks.

We’ve got a problem here that neither liberal nor conservative boilerplate policy prescriptions can solve. Nor does a judicious mix—a few drones here, a few aid dollars there—look particularly hopeful. Some of this is going to have to be handled by selective “ignorage.” When you really can’t solve a problem you sometimes just have to learn to live with it, and a good part of what these pathetic losers are up to is of no concern to the wider world. When you get right down to it, Americans would strongly prefer that people everywhere lived in religiously tolerant democracies and that nobody anywhere ever mistreated a woman, stoned an adulteress, or hanged a homosexual. But it is equally true that the country isn’t prepared to launch into an eternal series of wars to save thieves from having their hands cut off in small African towns.

Solving this challenging problem needs to be high on our agenda.

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