The administration will not avoid further involvement in an African tribal war.
AMERICANS aren’t paying much attention to Africa right now. Eclipsed by the violent politics of the Middle East and the turbulent economies of Europe, the world’s second-largest continent often flies under our radar altogether. Which is why, when something very important happened in the western African nation of Mali last April, it made few headlines.
A rebel group, having seized control of Azawad, which comprises the northern half of the country, proclaimed its independence. That group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA from its French-language acronym), had led the latest of a long series of rebellions in the wilds of the Sahel, where the Sahara gradually turns into subtropical Africa. The Tuareg, a Berber people with long-standing grievances in Mali, appeared on the verge of having an independent homeland.
The MNLA’s declaration was meant to announce the victorious conclusion of a three-month campaign against the demoralized recruits of the U.S.-trained Mali Defense Force. But the announcement was almost immediately upstaged by the ensuing power struggle. The self-described democratic secularists of the MNLA were pushed aside by a radical jihadist movement called Ansar Dine (“Defenders of the Faith”) allied to the al Qaeda franchise in northwestern Africa. But even this—the hijacking of a Texas-sized territory by avowed jihadists—barely registered outside professionally concerned circles.
It scarcely made headlines, either, when, in the midst of the U.N. General Assembly’s annual meeting this past September, France vowed support for the Malian reconquest of Azawad. (The territory, with the rest of Mali, was known as the Soudan français prior to a wave of decolonization that between 1958 and 1962 put an end to France’s African empire.) But perhaps this lack of attention was understandable: It was difficult to sustain interest in a little-known African nation while catastrophes raged in Libya and Syria.
The U.S. State Department endorsed the French plan, with some misgivings. After the Malian army crumbled before the Tuareg assault, junior officers in Bamako, Mali’s capital, overthrew the government, citing the poor leadership of President Amadou Toumani Touré (“President ATT,” as he is known in Mali) in fighting the rebellion.
This complicated matters, as coups often do. The State Department’s view before the coup was that Mali was a paragon of political and economic progress, having rejected both the “khaki power” and the “African socialism” of its first post-independence regimes. State’s position after the coup was that regime legitimacy must be settled first, before the Tuareg question. Under pressure from international groups, the junta handed formal power to an interim government (now headed by a U.S.-educated astrophysicist) whose principal task would be to organize new elections. (The junta, however, maintained a de facto veto over its decisions.)
The long-term strategy of our Africa Command (AFRICOM) is to render African militaries more effective and professional—meaning concerned with security and humanitarian missions, not with political power. It would be an understatement to say the events in Mali came as a disappointment, but AFRICOM stayed focused on the long term, conducting a scheduled exercise in next-door Senegal in July. Dismay at the jihadist breakthrough out of the Sahara onto the borderlands of black Africa was muted.
Drawing up a counter-insurgency plan within six months of a state’s collapse is not, if you think about it, a poor performance—and on the American side, you have to hand it to AFRICOM for keeping its nerve. Concern for Mali is real, but so is a steady hand elsewhere, notably in East Africa, where our programs with Ethiopian and Ugandan militaries have stopped—and may have reversed—the spreading subversion out of Somalia.
But for American diplomats, Mali is a national tragedy, not to mention a flagrant foreign policy failure on many levels. It shows the inability to recognize a threat and be honest about it. It represents another domino fallen to the Islamists. And yet despite a quarter-million Malian refugees, the dynamiting and bulldozing of priceless treasures of African culture in Timbuktu and environs, young women machine-gunned for making eyes at their boyfriends, Mali at best makes the world news briefs, deep inside the paper.
Will something be done about Mali? In the African theater, the preparations are bound to take time. Africa is vast, diverse, and complex. Not a single country bordering Azawad wants a state next door run by jihadists who moonlight as drug smugglers. But bringing them together in a multinational force capable not only of defeating the rebels but also of ensuring the southwestern Sahara remains tranquil will be a remarkable diplomatic and military feat. If the French pull it off, presumably with our logistical and diplomatic support, the political and economic dynamic throughout North and West Africa will be decisively affected. Whether this dynamic will pull in the direction of democracy remains to be seen. But whatever happens, the Malian crisis will be, unavoidably, at the top of the administration’s foreign policy agenda.
FOR NOW, the U.S. military is doing only the same thing it has done for years: train and advise our friends and allies. As an observer of one of these missions, I found myself on a C-130 bound for Mali on January 30, 2012—just days after the Tuareg went on the war path.
We were carried to Mopti, a town on the Niger River in central Mali, by the 53rd Airlift out of Little Rock AFB, a unit that traces its lineage back to the North African campaign of more than half a century ago. The Blackjacks can do anything from the air that you ask it to do. Its aircraft of choice is the C-130 Hercules, a venerable plane that was introduced in the late 1950s. The Hercules assigned to the Mali mission was a model built in 1974, which the commander, Col. Kelvin Anderson, pointed to as evidence of both the quality of American engineering and the meticulousness of Air Force maintenance crews.
The flight was long, but with no troops on board (they were coming on other flights), the craft soon became downright luxurious compared to commercial sardine cans. You plugged your ears against engine noise, the loadmaster and the riggers made sure everything was tight and secure, and time flew. Enjoy the wide Atlantic from 20,000 feet and a steady 300 mph. You can listen to music or read a book or discuss various matters with your mates—does God exist, should you marry your girlfriend, the reports on the outbreak of African tribal war.
The mission was routine, but that only means pilots and airmen trained for this until they knew every move by heart. Something unexpected can still happen. You cannot work too hard, you cannot be too careful, you cannot be too alert, you cannot be too good. Blackjacks—primus cum pluribus—first with the most!
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?
H/T to National Review Online