With the news that French forces have retaken not only Gao but Timbuktu, a colleague asked me this morning if I was surprised by the speed of French success. Here, in essence, is what I answered.
No, I’m not at all surprised about the initial success of the past 18 days. The French force is the very best France has, and matched against a ragtag guerrilla group it is going to kick ass every time. The French are way down the throats of the enemy, and good for them. I am no more surprised by their success than I was with how fast U.S. forces got to Baghdad in the spring of 2003.
But this is not “victory”, and I hope no one in Paris is dumb enough to suggest putting up a self-congratulating sign on some French warship. In Mali the bad guys are simply retreating out of formation, to the extent they were in formation in the first place. After the initial air attacks, not all that many of them have been killed. They are in the bush, watching, waiting and ambushing the unlucky convoy here and there.
Tuareg are cultural, if not always these days literal, nomads. Their fighters know how to live without heavy logistical bases and mass military formations. Their understanding of military tactics is based on several thousand years of mobile raiding. If you want to understand the kinds of tactics they use, study the war between Libya and Chad back in the mid-1980s. The Chadians beat the crap out of a much larger and better-armed, Soviet-supplied Libyan force. They mounted machine guns on the back of Toyota pickup trucks, substituting those for camels, and did more or less the same kind of thing they had been doing for centuries. The Libyan soldiers sighed, died, and those that remained ultimately retreated. I wonder if anyone in the U.S. military has remembered and studied that war in the Malian context. I doubt it, frankly, since that would require knowing at least a little history and being sensitive to ethnographic factors in warfare. But that’s the model to look at.
Moreover, the rebel attack south was in the first place an attempt to discombobulate an expected effort to attack the Azawad north. I don’t think the rebels wanted or expected to lose Timbuktu so soon, but they never expected to hold Gao or Konna. The problem is that the French have declared their military aim to be the complete reattachment of the northern part of the country to the government in Bamako—despite the fact that you cannot reattach something that was never really attached in the first place. The French think, or they are pretending to think, that an African force, along with the Malian army, can hold this area after the French leave. But it can’t. This is an area larger than Texas and with porous borders on every side. The idea that about 5,000–8,000 soldiers from half a dozen countries, nearly all of them ethnically alien in Tuareg-majority territory, could hold that large an area is risible. So going in and pushing the bad guys out of the cities is one thing; securing the area entirely and more or less permanently is something else again. The former is relatively easy; the latter is practically impossible with the numbers and under the conditions that currently obtain.
Finally, I’m not surprised by the swiftness of the advance, because lunatic Islamists, whether “guest” or native, always alienate the populations they abuse. It happened in Iraq, and now it’s happening in Mali.
But it’s a big mistake to conflate the Islamists with Tuareg nationalists. The former may wax or wane—probably wane. But the nationalists, both activists and their supporters, are still there. They were there before the war in Libya, and they will be there after this episode resolves.
My view is that the U.S. government should not accommodate the Islamists one iota, which is why I think it was plainly shameful for the Obama Administration to try to extract money from the French in return for some airlift services. This is after all an operation with a strategic logic that encompasses American as well as European interests. We are allies to the French, not green-eyeshade creditors.
But we do, I think, have a pragmatic interest in coming to terms with Tuareg nationalism. What we should be doing, therefore, aside from prudently but loyally helping our French ally, is quietly developing liaison with organized non-Islamist Tuareg nationalists.
Are we doing that? Perhaps, but I sincerely doubt it. We have lately been reduced to completely short-term and reactive behavior. Like the rest of the society, the military and intelligence wings of the U.S. government have fallen under the spell of the attention-segmenting technologies that are disorganizing our stock of knowledge about most things. By falsely equating information with knowledge, critical context is sacrificed to an obsession with collecting facts. But facts bereft of context are not only useless but organizationally paralyzing, if there are enough of them. Under such circumstances not only can we not think and plan ahead, we often cannot think or plan at all.
So we find ourselves on the proverbial bottom line: Study the Chad-Libyan War of the mid-1980s, help the French, and develop a plan to quietly liaise with non-Islamist Tuareg nationalists. Everybody clear on that?