Special Report

Hostages and Diplomats

A U.S. Ambassador criticizes the practice of paying ransoms -- but why embarrass the French in Mali?

By 2.11.13

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As every schoolboy knows, President Jefferson sent the Navy to the shores of North Africa 19th century because, by Jove, “millions for defense and not one cent for tribute!” The ensuing “wars of Barbary” contained most of the elements that security policy makers must contend with in a great and bustling democracy such as ours, including variously disposed congressmen, some aghast at the cost of it all and others delighted at the prospect of jobs in their districts’ shipyards.

Mr. Jefferson -- nominally a small-government man -- insisted on the imperative of projecting naval power to protect free trade. Notwithstanding his professed love of the simple rural life in Virginia, Jefferson was partial to French culture, not in the “A Year in Provence” sense but with respect to the fast life of Paris, including its life of the mind (though he drew a line when he saw the life of the mind could be deadly to the head). He quarreled with his good friend John Adams (a case of opposites attracting each other if ever there was one) over the issue of French meddling in American affairs during the latter’s administration. The revolutionists ruling France sent intelligence operatives to America to engage in subversive activities. Mr. Adams responded with an early version of the Patriot Act and Mr. Jefferson professed horror at this murder of civil rights.

The third president allowed the Alien and Sedition Acts to expire during his first term, and the French showed their gratitude by selling him the Louisiana Territory, leaving us with a third-rate utilities company that blew a fuse during the Super Bowl. With a different national perspective on terrorism and piracy, however, they refused to join him in his suggestion for a “perpetual cruise” in the Mediterranean, in effect an early version -- still another -- of the “coalition of the willing” dreamed up by Messrs. Cheney & Co. to put the kabosh on Saddam Hussein. Hurt but undaunted -- the British also turned him down -- Mr. Jefferson sent our young commanders to bombard Algiers and Tripoli but before we reached a final conclusion to that unpleasantness Mr. Madison went to war against Great Britain, guilty of kidnapping our seamen on the high seas, and the third world was forgotten for a time. Expeditions against the Barbary pirates have continued sporadically forever, viz. the Libyan intervention of 2011, which did not end well.

Vicki Huddleston, a top State Department official who served as our ambassador to Mali during the Bush W administration, stated last week that the French government paid $17 million in ransom money to the highwaymen and religious zealots who have been operating in the Sahara since the turn of the century (and much longer under other nomenclatures). She was not generous with documentary evidence, but it is no secret that money changed hands at different times since the terrorist bands established roving bases in the desert, with a particular fondness for the Texas-sized territory in Mali north of the Niger river that borders on Algeria, Mauritania, and Burkina Faso and that contains the redoubtable Iforas mountains, the Bora Bora of the Sahel and currently the focus of France’s military campaign to restore Mali’s territorial integrity.

A coalition of indigenous secessionists with long-standing grievances against the central government in Bamako and al Qaeda-affiliated holy gangsters seized the whole area about a year ago, very nearly bringing about the collapse of the Mali central state. After eight months of “phony war” during which a) the holy gangsters shoved the indigenous secessionists out of the main population centers in the north and proclaimed their intent to seize all of Mali and establish a West African caliphate and b) the southern Malians quarreled among themselves about what to do next, the jihado-highwaymen -- no one knows quite how to describe these folks so, with all due respect, we at TAS are trying out different handles, mainly for their audio effect -- attacked on the river and threatened to do exactly what they had said they would do.

However, the French were ready. Our gallant allies had pre-positioned troops in nearby countries and, having secured a U.N. Security Council green light late last year, they had no inhibitions about going in and rescuing their Malian ex-colonial subjects. This was noblesse oblige at its best, though some spoilsports observed that France, whose electrical grid is largely nuclear-powered, gets most of its uranium from Niger, which happens to be next door to Mali.

French troops encountered stiffer resistance than they expected, according to their own spokesmen, but in less than a month in the field they have been able to liberate the major population centers of the north from Islamist tyranny. Such was the local population’s oppression that leading religious and civic leaders, including from among the Tuareg tribal groups, have publicly welcomed the military intervention and called for the restoration of a united Mali. In the south, the French president, François Hollande, was acclaimed with the kind of enthusiasm (“Papa Hollande!” “Vive la France!”) that used to be reserved for the great de-colonizer, Charles de Gaulle.

The French military certainly deserve credit for the successful conclusion of the first part of the war, which may come to be marked, in retrospect, with the conquest, in this order according to reports, of Tessalit, a small town far in the northeast of Mali near Algeria, Kidal, a few hundred miles to the south, and Aguelhoc, in between the two. Kidal is the historic “capital” of the Azawad, as the Tuareg refer to the heart of the territory they call their homeland. Aguelhoc was the scene of a gruesome massacre of disarmed Malian recruits at the beginning of last year’s war, allegedly by Tuareg belonging to the “secular, democratic” MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad). Tessalit is an important outpost not only for its proximity to southwestern Algeria and its command of exits toward Niger, but for its airfield. It was where the Malians -- actually a unit mainly made up of loyalist Tuareg, who were resupplied by a USAF airdrop but were otherwise left to their own devices by the Bamako-based Malian command -- fought hardest last year before retreating into Niger.

The conquest of these towns means that for now the French-led forces command the marches of the Iforas mountains. With the liberation of Timbuktu, the second phase of the war begins, with its goals of pacification and eradication.

The French occupation of Kidal offers a clue to their way of reconciling these goals, which on the surface at least seem contradictory. But, as Mohamed Abdelaziz, president of Mauritania to Mali’s west, has repeatedly insisted, there can be no peace until the armed bands, whatever their rationale and self-justification, have a run of the yard, especially when the yard is the size of Texas, not to mention its backyard, the rest of the Sahara desert.

When the Ansar Dinne movement led by the Tuareg leader Iyad Ag Ghali withdrew from Kidal under the pressure of air attacks in advance of the approaching troops, the secular Tuareg of the MNLA resurfaced and occupied part of the town, according to Malian reports. The French air strikes stopped and French units advanced into the town without the Malian forces that accompanied them during the march north -- seemingly at the request of the MNLA. The latter offered to join with the French to eradicate Ansar Dinne and AQIM and its offshoot the MUJAO, West African Jihad, a mainly black African Islamist formation, blacks and whites (usually indistinguishable to the naked Western eye) in the region not being on the best of terms.

Is the offer credible? The French command cannot know until it finds out, but it is not necessarily unwise to give it a shot. Although President Hollande early in the campaign announced France was in it for the duration, more recent official statements from Paris suggest his government would like to be out of there as quickly as possible, with reductions in French forces, now numbering close to three thousand counting air crews, beginning as early as March. They have to pass the baton.

Or at least the boots. The most capable non-French forces in the coalition appear to be, at least for now, the Chadians, who have sent in nearly a thousand troops already, battle-hardened from the almost interminable civil wars in their own country and familiar with the physical and demographic terrain they are on.

Niger’s president, Mahmadou Issouffou, was forceful in his denunciation of any deals with “terrorists” behind the backs of the legitimate authorities, however weak. He himself has dealt sternly with any hints of terrorist incursion on his territory, and he certainly does not want anyone, even France, encouraging the Tuareg to start making deals with the ex-colonial power without regard for the post-colonial ones.

The French understand this and quickly made the correction, saying their troop deployments were governed by safety concerns and any negotiations with the MNLA would require their preliminary disarmament and their recognition of Bamako’s role. But the French are keenly aware that the Malian army and civil administration are not yet ready to undertake the job of restoring the country’s territorial integrity in a meaningful sense. French policy is to edge the self-proclaimed “secular and democratic” MNLA (which also claims to place a great emphasis on gender equality, which would be as much a gesture toward traditional Tuareg culture as toward currently correct political-think in Paris) toward a compromise on governance that would fall short of independence.

In any case it appears unlikely, as well as anyone can gauge public opinion in this territory, that the Tuareg civic and religious leaders in the north who have some degree of democratic legitimacy would accept a regime dominated by the MNLA leadership. The non-Tuareg communities of the region certainly would not.

Against this background, it may be that Ambassador Huddleston was asked -- by whom? -- to undercut French efforts by bringing up the issue of ransom money. But is it in the U.S. interest to subvert France’s Sahel policy? What is the alternative? Only a week or so ago Mrs. Huddleston was writing in the papers that there was no alternative to helping Mali defend itself against the Islamist hordes and a damn good thing someone was doing it. Then why cast doubts on our gallant allies’ motives now, in their moment of need? Actually, the State Department sent a bill to the French for the cost of our shuttling some of their troops and supplies in on military transport planes. The French reportedly were not amused, and maybe this is a way of reminding them they should be more responsible in the way they spend money. 

It is also possible the ambassador spoke entirely of her own volition. But then what is her narrow interest in this affair? If the French paid ransom money to such men as Moktar Belmoktar, the leader of the aptly named “blood brigade” that attacked the vast Algerian natural gas complex at In Amenas last month, resulting in the death of dozens of hostages, surely she knew about it. It is not public knowledge exactly when this money was paid to criminal gangs, with kickbacks to Islamist emirs and high Malian officials, by the French and other EU countries whose nationals had been grabbed, but the ambient corruption in Mali is not news. It was in full swing on her watch, in the mid-’00s, and she had nothing to say about it then. Why not? Is she trying to deflect the obvious criticism of our policy in the Sahel, a policy in the making of which she had an important role? Such criticism, which is direly needed as the administration rearranges its top national security team, can be constructive. We might as well review what we did or did not do, what we knew and chose to ignore, because these kinds of questions go to the heart of the frustrations and difficulties characteristic of the “savage wars of peace” that are a cruel but inexorable part of the world we live in.

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.