DeM Banter: military cutbacks and a pivot east? Anyone care to start a pool on the date of engagement?
January 29, 2013
The Obama administration’s decision to give non-combat, air support to French forces trying to beat back Islamic militants who are threatening to overrun Mali, so far, hasn’t caused much of a ripple among war-weary Americans.
But it should. Mali, a poor, landlocked nation, was considered a model African democracy until its elected government was toppled last year in a coup led by a U.S.-trained Malian army captain. However, like the civilian leaders he deposed, Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo failed to uproot the country’s jihadists, who now control large swaths of the mostly desert nation.
Only the French intervention in its former colony has turned the tide in the battle for control of Mali, which shares its border with seven fragile African states that could easily be threatened if Mali fails to defeat its Islamic militants. Many of these fighters were once mercenaries in the pay of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. When Gadhafi’s regime was toppled in a popular uprising that received significant military and financial assistance from a U.S.-led coalition, they returned to Mali, heavily armed and champing at the bit to overrun its American-backed government.
Though France has blunted that effort, it doesn’t have the military resources to sustain its fight against Mali’s jihadists without help from the U.S. military. For now, that amounts to the use of giant transport planes to ferry French troops into Mali, and planes to refuel French combat aircrafts that are pummeling the militants’ positions.
But that might not be enough. As recent events have shown, Northern Africa has become an expanding battleground for jihadists groups with links to al-Qaeda. The attack on the U.S. Consulate in the Libyan port city of Benghazi, which took the lives of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, was the work of Islamic militants. So was the botched takeover of a natural gas production plant in the Algerian desert that took the lives of three Americans and 35 other foreign workers.
“Those who sow the wind, reap the whirlwind,” said Charles Stith, a former U.S. ambassador to Tanzania, of the widening attacks by Islamic militants in Northern Africa.
“In our exuberance to depose the Libyan despot, Gadhafi, we didn’t think through the potential bad consequences,” said Stith, director of the African Presidential Center at Boston University, who is in regular contact with African leaders. “Gadhafi was only able to stay in power as long as he did because of the mercenary force he mobilized. It was clear to many folks in Africa that once he was gone, they would go somewhere else on the continent.” In the end, a multinational air campaign destroyed much of Gadhafi’s military hardware and demoralized his troops, who eventually were overrun by rebel forces.
The U.S. has tried to counter the actions of Islamic militants in Mali by pressing African nations within its sphere of influence to create a multinational military force to combat such threats. And while several of these countries have agreed to send troops to Mali, they lack the military capability to do much more than garrison towns regained by French forces.
The tougher job of hunting down and destroying the Islamic militants will be left to the French — a fight they cannot sustain without a growing demand for help from the American military. For now, that doesn’t involve U.S. combat troops fighter aircraft. But if, as I suspect is likely, other al-Qaeda-linked groups in the region step up their efforts to strike blows in support of their comrades in Mali, the U.S. will not be able to avoid a bigger military involvement.
Given the large numbers of countries at risk if the conflict in Mali spreads beyond its borders, the demand for the U.S. to do at least as much to save its friends in this region, as it did to topple Gadhafi, will be hard to ignore.