January 29, 2013

Serval, Burden-Sharing, and Limited Intervention

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
. 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

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.

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
, 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.

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.

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
, 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

* 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