The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
France Pounds Sand In The Sahara

France is now bombing the Sahara.

When French and Malian forces captured the town of Kidal last week, Islamist militants lost control of the last major town in northern Mali. Yet the battle continues despite France’s success at capturing the cities as the militants have moved to the vast, empty mountains in the north. African and French forces have begun to push forward to flush the Islamists out of their last desert strongholds, but they’re discovering that fighting in this inhospitable terrain is considerably more difficult than the urban combat they’ve seen so far. The New York Times reports:

The few Westerners who have traveled in this inaccessible region bordering Algeria say it differs from Afghanistan in that the mountains are relatively modest in size. But its harsh conditions make it a vast natural fortress, with innumerable hide-outs.

“The terrain is vast and complicated,” said Col. Michel Goya of the French Military Academy’s Strategic Research Institute. “It will require troops to seal off the zone, and then troops for raids. This will take time.” [...]

The French military has been flying fewer sorties over the region in recent days, “from which I deduce a lack of targets,” said a Western military attaché in Bamako, Mali’s capital, who was not authorized to speak on the record. “They are just not finding the same targets. Clearly they are hiding better and dispersing more widely.”

The fun part of the Mali war is over, but the war itself has only just begun. The bombing raids that wipe out enemy formations, the fall of cities, the parades with the kisses and flowers: All that is pretty much over and done with, but the enemy survives and will be heard from again.

The Malian government remains a pathetic shambles; the Malian armed forces make Italy look like Prussia, and the French lack the will and the capacity for successful desert warfare in the high desert. Trying to work out a political settlement that gets the Tuareg on board against the religious nutcases is the best strategy, but neither the Malian government nor its neighbors welcome that prospect.

The new strategy of the radical jihadis is to insert themselves into areas where states are weak and the terrain favors guerrillas. Right now that includes Syria as well as remote wastelands in places like the mountains of the Sahara—and of Afghanistan. Normally the world would not care which cliques of bandits control various inaccessible valleys and mountainsides out in the back of the beyond, but the ideological, financial and personal ties among these groups makes their presence difficult to ignore, and their capacity to take advantage of any vulnerabilities (like the political meltdown in Mali) means that we and our allies face the prospect of getting sucked into one campaign after another.

Meanwhile the radical ideology spreads in stressed out Arab countries where the Arab Spring is leaving a legacy of weak states and economic failure. Add that to the radicalization of religious feeling caused by the Sunni-Shi’a conflict throughout the Middle East and it’s an ugly mess.

Things are not looking good. On the one hand, at the moment there is not a lot that these people can really do; they can’t stand up to hostile armies in the field and they don’t (yet) have the capacity to take power in major countries like Egypt or even Syria. But they are successfully recruiting, training and equipping more fighters, and the unsettled conditions in much of the region favor the growth of their movement. We can’t win, but we can’t walk away. From Mali to Afghanistan that pretty much describes America’s strategic position right now; it is not the worst spot to be in, but it is certainly not the best.

Published on February 10, 2013 10:30 am