Stay Out of Mali
By Dan Simpson
January 18, 2013 "Pittsburgh
-- The French decision to intervene militarily in Mali,
a former French colony, has important implications for Mali,
France and the United States.
Mali used to be a basically benign West African state with a
democratically elected government. The United States was
helping to train and supply its armed forces. The country is
almost entirely Muslim, largely desert, with a population of
14 million and few resources. It is landlocked, with borders
on Algeria, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mauritania,
Niger and Senegal.
In March of last year, the Malian military, led by Capt.
Amadou Sanogo, an American-trained officer, overthrew its
democratically elected government. Shortly thereafter, the
northern two-thirds of the country seceded.
The rebellion in the north was first dominated by Tuaregs,
who were then supplanted by an Islamist group, Ansar Dine,
which France and the United States claim has ties to
al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. Both had brought arms with
them from Libya when the rebels there, supported by the
West, overthrew the government of Moammar Gadhafi, whom the
Malians had served as mercenaries.
This month the rebels from the north began to move south
toward Bamako, the capital. Malian armed forces showed
themselves unable to mount a credible defense. The French
and Mali's African neighbors, alarmed at the progress of the
Tuaregs and Ansar Dine, first tried to mobilize an African
force, supported by the West, to resist the rebels. They
were able to get U.N. Security Council support, but the
rebels weren't waiting for France and its allies to organize
resistance as they continued to move south.
To forestall the fall of the capital, on Friday the French,
with British and American support, put several hundred
troops into Mali and began bombing northern Malian towns
held by the rebels from bases in Chad and France.
What does this mean? The answer depends on where one is
standing, since it has different significance in France, in
its former colonies in Africa and in the United States.
For France it is a question of demonstrating to Mali and
other former French colonies that Paris still has teeth and
retains the option to support or not support its African
client states through military intervention. It has chosen
to defend Mali. It has so far chosen not to defend the
Central African Republic, where that country's president,
Francois Bozize, is also at risk of being overthrown by
armed rebels -- the "Seleka" alliance from the north, whose
forces also are nearing their nation's capital, Bangui.
France has serious financial problems and its relatively new
president, Francois Hollande, is being criticized at home
for being wobbly in the face of critical economic decisions.
In financial terms it might seem like the worst of times for
him to take France into an expensive war in Africa,
particularly one which could go on for a long time and one
which France could even lose. (The northern Malian rebels
may just dodge the bombs and push on for Bamako.) On the
other hand, going into Mali makes Mr. Hollande look decisive
and, if it works, farsighted in terms of sheltering France's
friends in Africa. It is also something he can do without
having to deal with the sometimes pesky French parliament.
For Mali and other former French colonies, it is humiliating
to admit that they themselves are incapable of turning back
the threat presented by the northern Malian rebels. French
aircraft bombing Malian towns and French troops defending
the capital of an African country carries with it the
strong, pungent odor of neocolonialism, whatever "terrorist"
label the French may try to put on the Malian rebels. The
whole thing is made significantly worse by the fact that
what is left of Mali is now led by a military junta directed
by an American-trained officer.
For the United States, supporting French troops in Mali,
based on the belief that the rebels may have ties to a
shadowy branch of al-Qaida, the imagery is terrible. U.S.
forces are helping a former colonial power intervene
militarily in an African country that has been independent
since 1960 in order to preserve in power an unelected
military government headed by a U.S.-trained army captain.
What is this about?
First of all, U.S. military leaders are looking for
business. With the Iraq war over and the Afghanistan war
winding down, they are looking for new conflicts to justify
their requests for billions of dollars to fund their
activities around the world. This need becomes particularly
sharp with budget cuts looking the Department of Defense and
every other department of government in the eye.
With the ends of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars Americans
have a right to expect a peace dividend from the Pentagon.
It should take cuts consistent with those that Americans
will be asked to endure in other spending -- on education,
health care and infrastructure.
The military can try to avoid budget cuts by coming up with
new "wars of opportunity" festooned with claims of al-Qaida
and other "terrorist" involvement. These might include
Yemen, Syria, Somalia and even Mali, as well as an argument
that America can't walk away from Afghanistan, even after 11
There is no way to argue that anything that happens in Mali
presents a threat to the United States. Satellite and drone
coverage can continue to confirm this. If France and its
former African colonies want to put troops in and bomb
targets in Mali to protect the military government in
Bamako, let them do so, but without American involvement.
The U.S. Congress already should be climbing all over the
Obama administration to find out why it is involving us in
this conflict, which is of no interest to America.
Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the
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