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Thus far, the intervention in Mali seems, at least initially, a banner standard for the practice, insofar as Washington is concerned. A coalition of African and European forces, with France taking the lead in the air and with crack troops on the ground, is sending AQIM and fellow travelers and cobelligerents such as Ansar Dine and MUJAO packing from the cities of Gao and Timbuktu*. The U.S. role appears for now limited to the provision of airlift, refueling, and ISR, a far less costly task than firing barrages of Tomahawk missiles and airstrikes to dismantle its air defenses and the rest of the regime with it.
The debate about the role toppling Gaddafi played in Mali’s current crisis still rages. Algeria’s government, which appears a great deal more sympathetic to the latter position, forced a bloody end to a retaliatory hostage-taking and siege in its own territory, killing foreign citizens along with the terrorists who seized the gas field. As for America’s limited role in the operation, Philip Carter rightly pointed out that even extremely limited role in the U.S. intervention comes at a price, and one perhaps too high.
If the war in Mali is – for now – the best Washington can hope for in an intervention, then the flaws it presents are worth paying attention to, for they’ll arguably be the hardest to eliminate. At the largest level, and perhaps applicable to the widest number of future crises, is the issue Carter highlights – the broken system of burden sharing. I disagree with Anne Applebaum when she posits this intervention as proof of a new European superpower. For one, let’s not give “Europe,” or even the majority of countries in it, so much credit. France is leading Operation Serval, neither the EU nor NATO are in control. That other countries are providing ancillary support is well and good, but French troops are the only Europeans openly committing to combat operations.
Not only that, but France and an assortment of other countries conducting a limited war in Europe’s historical backyard does not a superpower make. Operation Épervier, France’s long-running intervention in Chad, along with many other French operations, long demonstrated Paris’s ability to conduct military operations across northern and western Africa. Nobody ought to question that when French troops arrive in theater, they are extremely competent, and the record of French troops after Algeria and Indochina affirms this. However, that European states lack the willpower or capability to muster sufficient airlift and refueling assets for a small-scale operation in Mali, just as many ran low on munitions in Libya, is a warning sign for future planners, and an obvious red flags for any hasty claims to superpower status (not even de Gaulle was so grandiose).
If one of our most militarily capable allies cannot confidently act unilaterally in its own historical sphere of influence, or requires significant subsidization to do so, the U.S. ought question the incentives it is perpetuating for the supposed major stakeholders in its emergent security policies. Without allied capability to independently project power, burden-sharing could mean the U.S. getting locked into wars primarily of interest to its allies, while its allies will have less to offer in return during U.S.-led war efforts, which frequently require much longer logistical tails. The next war European states want American assistance in may come at a time when U.S. forces are more overdrawn and the conflict in question is more difficult, while the next theater of war America may ask European aid in may be even harder to operate in without the U.S. paying for an increasing share of the power projection.
Beyond issues of power-projection, the interaction of issues of counterterrorism, regime change, and rebellion in Libya and Mali still demand attention. Even assuming forgoing intervention in Libya would have led to the exact same outcome in Mali, resources are finite. Those engaged in toppling Gaddafi and now dealing with the aftermath of Libya might have been better spent in contingencies to limit the spillover of a longer-running civil war or surviving Gaddafi regime. Particularly since the Algerian gas field siege demonstrates that even the most successful interventions face the potential for expansion, escalation, or blowback, saving energy and assets for dealing with the vicissitudes of fog, friction, and fate is particularly prudent, especially when the next crisis presents a more direct threat.
Now, France is outlining plans to halt, or at the very least suspend, its offensive into central Mali, and let other forces take on the brunt of the ground fighting. As limited warfare in practice, France’s model initially has much to recommend it. Jason Fritz, when assessing the merit of airpower in support of unconventional warfare, suggested a rebel force unworthy of ground support might also be unworthy of air support. In Mali, France identified a threat urgent enough to merit a ground deployment and interests constrained enough to sketch a plan for that deployment to be responsible.
Ultimately, France’s ability to contemplate restrained interests relies on the political context of its intervention. It fights at the request of the local government rather than to unseat it. It fights broadly on the side of tradition against Islamist groups perceived to be foreign in origin, intolerable in behavior and alien in ideology. It fights more to restore a status quo rather than revolutionize a region.
Of course, it is far too early to tell if Mali’s war will end up being so amenable to French and broader international interests as it is now. Trying to understand the local context that will ultimately decide so, however, is more a job for analysts such as Andrew Lebovich, Alex Thurston, Hannah Armstrong, along with journalists such as Peter Tinti and Joe Penney, who have regional experience or, in the case of the last three, are in Mali now. Ultimately, while it is useful to consider at the macro-level where Mali fits into understanding of how interventions succeed and fail, the more vital questions about Mali itself can’t be answered at this level of analysis. Hopefully, though, a better conception of what interests are worth fighting for and how best for the U.S. to advance them will, even if it cannot prevent such a tumult from reoccurring elsewhere, clarify if and how the use of force can ameliorate its consequences.
* I also wanted to highlight an amazing story about the preservationists and other residents of Timbuktu, who saved the majority of the city’s collections of historic manuscripts – documents important not simply to locals but to the world’s posterity – from destruction at the hands of retreating Islamist militants. Although initial reporting suggested arson destroyed most of the records, it appears preservationists had left enough in museums to prevent militants from catching on, and sequestered the rest in safe houses. Despite the recent retreat, the location of historical materials remains guarded, in case those who tried to destroy them have a chance to return.