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There is a massive, historic upheaval gong on—one chaotic Islamic country after another–spanning more than 7000 miles of the globe—a huge tectonic shift—from Western Africa to the Western frontiers of China.
And, despite a military budget larger than most of the rest of the world combined, the Pentagon and Barack Obama, are basically consigned the roll of on-lookers, cautiously kibitzing from the side, occasionally trying to influence things. Often, not even leading from behind.
Mali, at the Western end of that volatile crescent, is a case in point.
As Colin Powell famously warned George H.W. Bush on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, “if you break it, you own it.”
France is not responsible for “breaking” Mali. The country was already a West African basket case long before the French intervention.
But, as things now stand, France “owns” the shattered country. And there’s no crazy glue in sight.
In other words, France, which enraged many Americans by refusing to participate in the invasion of Iraq, now finds itself stuck with the results of their own intervention.
French President Francois Hollande’s dilemma is how to finesse that predicament—without making it look like France has cut and run, leaving an unseemly chaos in his wake.
Hollande made his conundrum clear during his visit this past Saturday to Mali when he announced that France “will stay as long as necessary, but its purpose is not to stay.”
Not that different a straddle from the problem the U.S. faced in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In fact, France’s sputtering economy can ill-afford this military adventure. More than 10% of the population is unemployed, factories continue to shut down, automobile sales slumped 15% in January, public employees are out on strike, etc. etc.
What passes for leadership in that country is a “transitional regime” the product of a military coup against the previous regime, which was corrupt, ineffectual, totally unable to deal with the growing crisis.
Which was why it was overthrown. Somehow, elections are going to have to be organized, which also means negotiating some kind of settlement with the Tuaregs of Northern Mali, who have been demanding attention from the central government for decades. It was their rebellion that was hijacked by the jihadis-some of whom were linked with Al Qaeda.
But what to do about those jihadis? In fact, the big question now, is where they hell are they? As far as is known, they took very few casualties. In most cases, without a shot being fired from the ground, they evaporated back into the desert or from wherever they came–often long before the French troops arrived.
So, do they just disappear or launch hit-and-run attacks against troops sent to hunt them down? Or wait until most of the French pull out?
What happens if the French-backed Malien army commits more outrages on the civilian population? What happens if the French feel obliged to overstay their visit, and—like the U.S. in Iraq or Afghanistan–become viewed as occupiers rather than liberators.
The French have been talking about turning over frontline duties to African troops. But the Malien army is woefully trained, and equipped, its officers are said to be up to their helmets in cigarette and drug smuggling, often in cahoots with the radical Islamic groups they were supposed to be keeping at bay.
There are also thousands of other African troops from West Africa, who have been arriving in dribs and drabs in various states of readiness and training. They also lack weapons, logistics support, skill in desert fighting, and, above all, money to pay for their operations.
[Indeed some countries volunteer for such operations because it’s a great way to have someone else pick up the tab for their own over bloated armies.]
So, apart from training those troops, who’s going to pick up the tab? Again, France finds itself scanning the horizon for help.
Earlier this week, the President of the Ivory Coast announced at a donors’ conference in Ethiopia that the price tag for the “African-led International Support Mission to Mali” would be $950 million. That’s to cover not just military deployment and logistics, but humanitarian assistance, and at least the down payment on future development.
This is China, mind you, that, with huge investments throughout West Africa, has an enormous amount at risk if political instability spreads.
The last thing the Chinese want, however, is for their projects–and thousands of their citizens–throughout the region to also become targets of Islamic radicals.
That same caution, fueled by the bitter lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq, has kept France’s allies on the sidelines, supplying aircraft to transport French troops and refuel French fighter jets, as is the U.S., but staying clear of any front-line roles themselves.
Washington has wanted to keep an arms length from the conflict in order not to offer the jihadis a rallying point to inflame recruits.
But the U.S. is providing pilotless drones to track the rebels. And the problem is that to be effective, those drones will also have to be armed with missiles to take out the rebels they track down.
What happens as the inevitable cases of collateral damage start rolling in?
As a nod to the French, the British finally decided to send 350 soldiers, but only to serve as instructors for the African troops. There is no way they’re going to be involved in ground combat.
Indeed Prime Minister David Cameron, delivered one of the most pessimistic verdicts on the situation, when, during a recent visit to Algeria, he declared Britain’s determination to deal with “the terrorism threat” in Mali. “It will require a response that is about years, even decades, rather than months, and it requires a response that…has an absolutely iron resolve…”
Or, as one retired French colonel blogged, “war against non-state organizations is a war of Sisyphus. We’re in the Sahel for a long time.”
Barry M. Lando, a graduate of Harvard and Columbia University, spent 25 years as an award-winning investigative producer with 60 Minutes. His latest book is “Web of Deceit: The History of Western Complicity in Iraq, from Churchill to Kennedy to George W. Bush.” Lando is currently completing a novel, “The Watchman’s File”, concerning Israel’s most closely guarded secret (it’s not the bomb.) He can be reached through his blog.