The administration will not avoid further involvement in an African tribal war.
(Page 5 of 5)
WHY DO THE WOMEN of the Sahel have seven, eight children before they are out of their 20s? Because several of them are expected to die before they can help the family in any way. When this is the overwhelming fact of your life, you can’t get terribly upset about who has the power over your government.
But of course, there is a difference between the MNLA and jihadist Ansar Dine. And by the early days of March, the difference was becoming all too clear. The war was lost, for now. Alhaji Ag Gamou knew that and bluffed his way through enemy lines to escape with his men and rifles into Niger. Tessalit fell, and it seemed there might be a Tuareg nation.
Instead, there came into being a radical Islamist zone, quite possibly doubling as a narcostate, a lair of “armed bandits.” The drop was done (not by the Blackjacks, who stayed on task; humanitarian supplies only, according to the Air Force), but it fell into the enemies’ hands. That was it for us. Headed home. The decision isn’t ours, you know, not our pay grade.
Policymakers at both State and Defense, and their big-thinking hierarchical superiors in Washington, said they could not: Could not do anything until the situation was clear, could not do anything with the forces at hand, could not do anything given the state of the Malian army (now they noticed), could not do anything prior to in-depth consultations with the West African leaders and the French. As Justin Lenz says, “If you say you can’t, it means you won’t.”
Later, however, it seemed that the State Department and those at the higher pay grades had seen things clearly. Just what exactly could we do in Mali, for Mali? We had misunderstood and misjudged Mali from the moment we assured ourselves President Touré was some kind of Jeffersonian liberal setting forth on the path to democracy and prosperity. We pretended the venality and corruption in his entourage and army was of little consequence. We assured ourselves Touré was uniting all Malians, even though his northern development program was viewed as patronizing peanuts by the northerners and handouts if not blackmail by the southerners.
By the time the Tuareg war began, our idea of liberal, harmonious Mali was set in stone. Regardless of the degree to which it was incorrect, its consequence was that the whole weight of our government was against the idea of a military intervention to save our model West African nation. In an election year especially, there was no likelihood of deploying a reaction force into northern Mali.
Well, there was a way. There always is. But there was no will. The French, three or even two decades earlier, probably could have airlifted a battalion of Foreign Legionnaires into Tessalit or dropped them over Kidal and turned the tide of battle. They had bases from which to do this in Abidjan and Libreville. But they were in an election year too, and, moreover, they have been abandoning the chasse gardée, the private reserve. Our own gradual development of African bases, from which to launch humanitarian and military rescue missions, is taking its time. AFRICOM has a plan, but one step at a time.
Since this was the reality, they let it go, choosing to bide their time and see what happened. After the fall of Tessalit, the spiral accelerated. The Tuareg forces soon invaded Kidal. Then there was the army coup against President ATT in Bamako, led by a young captain, Amadou Sanogo. He promised to enforce the inviolability of Malian territorial integrity, but the immediate issue was power and how to keep it. By then the U.S. had cut off aid, including military aid, definitively putting an end to any notion of short-term rescue. And neighboring West African nations were blockading Mali and demanding that civilian rule be restored. Sanago insisted that he wanted nothing better than to return power to civilians. Meanwhile, Gao fell without a fight, as did Timbuktu.
On April 6, the MNLA declared Azawad an independent state and appealed to the community of democracies to recognize it.
Nothing happened, because by that time the MNLA was rapidly losing ground to the combined forces of Ag Ghali and his allies. In Gao and Timbuktu, perforce the smaller localities, the Islamists did what they always had promised to do: impose and enforce Islamic law. Women and girls who escaped with just a whipping for acts of indecency learned to consider themselves lucky they were not machine-gunned. The same went for musicians who might be caught performing at a wedding. Or restaurateurs (there are some even in these remote lands), who could at least reflect that seeing their stock of alcoholic beverages destroyed was preferable to seeing their own blood soak the desert sand. Talk of an independent Azawad was forgotten: Ag Ghali was not interested. He continued to say his aim was to impose Islam, as he understood it, throughout all of Mali.
In September, in the corridors of the United Nations headquarters at Turtle Bay, the Malian delegation lobbied for an armed intervention by the West African community, backstopped by the U.S. and France. The French supported this plan: They wanted to clear the southwestern Sahara of the bandits who kidnapped their nationals. And with their newly restored influence in neighboring Côte d’Ivoire, it was not unreasonable for the French to want clout in Bamako. The Americans were not against the idea. But first things first, including presidential elections—ours and theirs—because we would not think of intervening until they restored constitutional order. Might happen, might not. The Hellfighters are ready. But do not say you can, unless you will.