Normative Narratives


Conflict Watch: Mali, and Learning from Premature “Mission Accomplished” Statements

Mali, a former French colony, has been dealing with Islamic militants for more than a decade. The main opposition to the Malian government, Boko Haram, isa militant Islamic group. Boko Haram wishes to instill sharia law in Mali, although it is uncertain whether it ultimately wishes to take over all of Mali or create a separate Islamic state in northern Mali.

Either way, Boko Haram has no legitimacy and must be countered, according the Malian government, the French government, and the U.N. Security Council. It appeared that multilateral Security Council measures would ultimately occur in Mali sometime next year. France has other plans, and in response to a plea from the Malian government intervened in the conflict.

It will be interesting to now see what the response is by the international community.

“For now, the French are fighting only from the air in support of Malian troops, while also making airstrikes on northern extremist camps and strongholds deep inside Islamist-held territory, like Gao…Mr. Fabius [a French Foreign Minister] said on Sunday that the French engagement would last only a matter of “weeks,” but as French forces wait for their African counterparts to ready themselves, Mr. Hollande may find it hard to keep his vow not to use French ground forces in northern Mali.”

I’m stressing the “matter of weeks” assessment, and will come back to it later.

“For its part, the United States has long pledged logistical support but no troops… Mr. Panetta said that even though Mali was far from the United States, the Obama administration was deeply worried about extremist groups there, including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. “We’re concerned that any time Al Qaeda establishes a base of operations, while they might not have any immediate plans for attacks in the United States and in Europe, that ultimately that still remains their objective,” he said.”

This is a smart position for the U.S., as currently traditional military intervention is not economically justifiable. The U.S. has clearly learned its lessons from invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan. France, it appears, may have to learn some of the same lessons itself. However, the U.S. does have a stake in the Malian outcome, both in terms of regional stability and because of the Al-Queda presence in Mali.

“Earlier on Monday, before the fall of Diabaly, Mr. Fabius, the French foreign minister, said the military effort had three goals: to “block the advance of the terrorists, which is done”; to restore Mali’s territorial integrity, “which will take more time”; and to secure the carrying out of United Nations Security Council resolutions on the Mali crisis…A French analyst, who was briefed on the situation but declined to be identified by name, said the dilemma facing French forces was now whether to maintain a United Nations schedule for West African and Malian troops to seek to recapture the north in the fall after seasonal rains, “which given the current dynamic seems hard to imagine,” or to “speed things up and try to clear the north in the next eight weeks” before the rainy season.”

French officials have acknowledged the fact that a quick intervention is probably not possible. While the situation is not exactly the same as in Iraq or Afghanistan (or even Syria), there is a similarity in these situations. There is a lesson to be learned about the importance of conducting robust due-diligence when considering military intervention.

“On War & Peace: 2002: Iraq occupation will last 5 weeks or 5 months at most

“I can’t tell you if the use of force in Iraq today would last five days, or five weeks, or five months, but it certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that.”

–Donald Rumsfeld, November 14, 2002

“It could last six days, six weeks. I doubt six months”

— Donald Rumsfeld, February 7, 2003

“I think it will go relatively quickly. Weeks rather than months.”

— Dick Cheney, March 16, 2003

“No one is talking about occupying Iraq for five to ten years.”

— Richard Perle, March 9, 2003

“It could be that, absolutely.”

— George W. Bush, when asked of the United States would have troops in Iraq for the next ten years, January 11, 2008”

The lesson is this: be cautious of anybody trying to sell a quick and painless military intervention. True France is much closer, both geographically and historically, to Mali than the U.S. was to either Iraq or Afghanistan. True also that Boko Haram probably doesn’t have the same military resources as Al-Queda, Sadam Hussien, or Bashar-Al-Assad.

But still, nations should tread cautiously in Malian intervention. Empowering the local government (if a trustworthy one exists, which in Mali’s case it does), is probably the most effective and defensible position most foreign countries (including the U.S.) can take. France, with it’s colonial ties, took stronger actions which are understandable. Perhaps strategic military intervention, such as the assassinations of Bin Laden and Gaddafi, may become feasible in the future when more intelligence on Boko Haram becomes available.