When France entered the world’s newest war against terrorism, French officials boldly declared that the ragtag radical Islamists they planned to oust from northern Mali would scatter in the face of a modern fighting force.
But two weeks later, reality has sunk in. Even as they bombard Islamist targets, the French troops are facing a military landscape that is far more complicated than it appeared at the outset, raising questions about France’s long-term goals.
With no clear exit strategy, the French are encountering a host of problems: Mali’s interim government is weak, its military is disorganized, and a long-promised African intervention force is far from ready. Even as French troops worry about killing civilians, it is unclear who the civilians are and where their sympathies lie. Ethnic, religious and regional rivalries, as well as old and unsettled vendettas, also are posing obstacles.
The Malian army, which France sought to bolster with its action, has been accused of committing abuses, particularly against the Tuareg ethnic group, some of whose members launched the March rebellion that has divided this West African nation.
The parallels between Mali and Iraq are there, and we should take note of them. Regardless of the merits of the Iraq war, right now the United States can’t afford another long, drawn-out, nation-building engagement.
Instead, let’s take this as an opportunity to finally acknowledge the folly of blindly cheering for the Arab Spring and capital-D-E-M DEMOCRACY. As Daniel Larison noted, the Domino Theory in Mali is real, and the removal of Moammar Gaddafi in Libya helped precipitate the crisis there. With Islamists on the lookout for power vacuums, our Middle East interventions can have unintended consequences the likes of which we never imagined. Memo to Washington: learn that lesson.
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