Why intervening in Mali was the right thing to do

By David Rohde
January 17, 2013

The question from a colleague – one whose work I admire – could have come from anyone in the United States.

“So the French,” he asked, “now have their own Afghanistan?”

The answer is yes and no. Western military interventions should be carried out only as a last resort. But Mali today is a legitimate place to act.

Several thousand jihadists threaten to destabilize Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Algeria. Beyond the human rights abuses, their attacks will discourage foreign investment, paralyze local economies and produce vast numbers of refugees. Skeptics play down the threat, but the instability these extremists create will spread over time.

The tragic kidnapping in Algeria, where many hostages appear to have died in a botched rescue attempt today, is already prompting oil companies to pull foreign workers out of the region. Islamists can’t be ignored and won’t disappear. They should be confronted or contained. The question is how.

To ensure that Mali is not another Afghanistan, it is vital that France and the international community have reliable allies on the ground. They should mount diplomatic and economic efforts ‑ not just lethal force ‑ against the jihadists as well.

Many commentators immediately dismissed France’s intervention. Some denounced it as “militarism.” Others declared it “neo-colonialism.” The most common phrase was “quagmire.”

In Washington, even some Obama administration officials played down the threat that Mali represented, arguing that Western troops may have made things worse. Isolationism is politically easy but the wrong course. No American ground troops should be deployed, but the Obama administration should assist the French with logistics and intelligence support. 

Lost in the so-far skeptical response to the intervention is a clear truth on the ground. For now, public opinion in Mali and across West Africa is hugely supportive of the French intervention. Press reports indicate that before the French arrived, the 1.8 million people of Bamako, Mali’s capital, were increasingly terrified that Islamists would take the city.

“People have started to smoke cigarettes and wear long pants!” one taxi driver declared after France intervened. “They’re playing soccer in the streets!”

From a military standpoint, the French had to act, according to experts on the region. More than 8,000 French citizens live in Mali, many of them in Bamako. And last week militant groups were on the verge of seizing a militarily vital airfield in the town of Sevare. Had the field been seized, it would have been enormously difficult for troops from France or a UN-mandated West African force to have moved into Mali.

Gregory Mann, a Columbia University history professor and an expert on Mali, has written the best analysis I have found of the intervention. The crisis “needs diplomatic intervention every bit as urgently as it needed military intervention,” he argues. 

“Mali’s troubles come largely from beyond the country’s borders, as do most of the jihadi fighters,” Mann told me in an email message. “It will take a coalition of countries to confront them, and building and maintaining such a coalition should be the diplomats’ first priority.”

Fears of a quagmire are understandable. The problems that have plagued Mali in recent years after decades of stability sound familiar: government corruption, ethnic and separatist tensions, drug trafficking, meddling neighbors and increasingly weak national institutions, particularly the army.

A previous American effort to train the Malian army to fight Islamists failed spectacularly. And the French intervention is likely to spark retaliatory attacks like the seizure of dozens of foreign hostages in Algeria on Wednesday. Post-Iraq and Afghanistan, skepticism about any Western military intervention is healthy. And France’s record of intervention ‑ from Algeria to Vietnam ‑ is poor. But Malians are calling for help, and a UN effort to counter the militants has stalled.

The Islamist fighters have taken control of northern Mali with surprising speed, are well organized, heavily armed and in control of a desert area the size of France. Their fighters include members of al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb, a North Africa-based group allied with al Qaeda. In the future, they could easily use Mali as a base to carry out attacks in France and Europe.

Until now, the group has not said it intends to carry out attacks in the United States, but members of the groups are believed to have been involved in the murder of the American ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and three other Americans. They have also amassed an estimated $100 million by kidnapping Westerners and demanding enormous ransoms. 

Robert Fowler, a Canadian diplomat who was kidnapped by the group in 2009, said his captors told him their hope was to create an Islamic emirate that spanned Africa. Their goal was to spread chaos from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

“They would tell me repeatedly that their objective was to extend the chaos of Somalia across the Sahel to the Atlantic coast,” Fowler said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “They believed that in that chaos their jihad would thrive.”

My perspective is not neutral. Four years ago two Afghan colleagues and I were kidnapped by the Taliban and held captive for seven months in Pakistan. I saw their brutality, ignorance and determination first-hand.

I believe economic growth is the best way to counter militancy, not massive Western military interventions. To me, a threat exists from militancy, it is not manufactured. Yet we declare that there is no threat or grow impatient when it is not quickly solved.

France faces months of casualties and conflict, but that should be expected. Quick solutions are illusory. So are claims that we can ignore violent militants. Countering militancy involves a combination of limited military force, expansive diplomacy and patience. We rarely show those qualities. I hope the French do.

PHOTO: French troops drive to Segou January 16, 2013. French troops launched their first ground assault against Islamist rebels in Mali on Wednesday in a broadening of their operation against battle-hardened al Qaeda-linked fighters who have resisted six days of air strikes. REUTERS/Francois Rihouay

5 comments

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It’s almost charming to entertain notions of the right thing to do and than later to learn: your side or the enemy side are both beating blindly at “the right thing”.

Continuous warfare that must engage the strengths of any country for a very long time without end may indeed have been the right thing but the cost and the pain takes it toll on the warriors, good or evil. The only thing that can seem to out endure men are machines and even they can be broken and wear out. It is debatable always what priority is highest when the rich aid or claim they aid the weak. They always serve two masters against better advice.

The largest part of Africa seems to be becoming more parched in the past decade. Take a look at Google earth and so much of Africa now looks brown and streaked by what seems to be desertification.

It makes less sense, if that is the case, to further aggravate those dying regions with more warfare because ultimately the dessert will conquer anything you put there. It would be a real sacrifice – albeit “Children of Men” like to relocate populations from regions than may no longer be able to support human life at all.

Warfare in such areas may really be nothing more than shooting a corpse in its final death rattles. It may make the “heroes” feel less than useless but it won’t really accomplish much by way of true reclamation from conditions that no country or continent, even with far more significant strength and investment, is capable of countering. The self styled St. Georges will be fighting forces that claim they believe in their abject submission to the “will of God”. The “enlightened” countries may actually be doing the worst thing in regions that may have more value to the wealthy for their geological resources than their human population.

I am a born again cynic and know damned well people will try to sell you a rotten junker of a used car. It is in their interest to lie to gain an advantage or to make a sale. The “Devil” is seductive” and very clever. And his sole aim may be a hatred so deep he wants only to see countries and even entire civilizations burdened so severely it only takes them down as the better healed vent vital resources trying to counter their last struggles before their own vengeful forces bite the dust. In other words, they don’t want to go into extinction without taking the survivors with them. Dylan Thomas’s advice to his father, in other words; they may simple not want to “go gently into that good night”.

But the wealthy are frightful hypocrites and will claim concern and yet never take their eyes off their own ability to get and stay wealthy and to stay on top and in control of as much as possible. Never talk wars as the “right thing” without also admitting that concern is always the highest priority concern.

It might be better for those who can to start adopting the children of Africa rather than contribute even more to the slaughter of their parents: or if the later is unavoidable, not to neglect the former.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

In the first place, not all devout Muslims are “Jihadists” any more than all devout Jews are “Jewists”. Whatever a Jewist is. But a Jewist is just as well defined as a “Jihadist”. Both are religious people absolutely convinced of their own superiority. Both seek to rule others different from themselves.

Mostly, any thinking that even considers a “Jihadist” category of Muslims is ignorant and prejudiced. Certainly as prejudiced as thinking all Jews are “Jewist” or perhaps more misleadingly as “Zionists” or “Israelis”. Does anyone who promotes the new Crusade against Islam deny the right of religious Jews to make their own laws in Israel? Or the right of Christians to make laws in lands majority Christian?

Mostly American thinkers would do well to understand that at base one’s own ethnicity or religion produces a bias in explaining the world. The thinking of Jewish intellectuals needs to be understood as seeing non-Jews and non-Jewish interests in their own, different light. We are all bound to our culture. American culture, historically, is not devoted to the obliteration of Islam as a religion or as a political force.

Let us solve our own problems and stop bankrupting America with Crusader wars around the Muslim world. Let us pay for our own promised insurance benefits for our own people instead of squandering almost all of the FICA taxes collected in the past 50 years on meaningless wars against countries which have not attacked us first.

If we must have the largest and most expensive military in the world, let us rein it in to our own territory and pull out of foreign bases and cancel foreign deployments. Imperialism only thrives when it makes a profit. Our Imperial military does not make a profit. Pull it out.

No more wars!

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive

Unless one kills teachers or bankrupts the schools of violence. Staying in an area infected by that is a losing cause. Killing some bad guys to show those same instructors they will have losses and getting out is the best idea.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive

How can you call the rescue of 685 Algerian and 107 foreigner workers “botched rescue attempt”.

Posted by giorgio411 | Report as abusive

Is this going to be another three-part Tag Team act by France and the USA?

That is, something like what they rehearsed in Vietnam:
1). France gets its ass kicked.
2). The USA steps into the ring to offer relief.
3). The USA gets its ass kicked.

Posted by jrpardinas | Report as abusive