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…