America and the War for Mali by James Inwood

Anyone with even a summary knowledge of modern Africa knows that it consists of one part optimism and nine parts hopelessness. Mali has been no exception over the past year. For those who are understandably ignorant of African geopolitics, Mali is an awkwardly-shaped nation in West Africa that once was home to the wealthiest man in history, Mansa Musa. Today, Mali’s only boast is demographic diversity: myriad ethnic groups, Moors, and nomads. While this diversity is beloved by Western progressives, in practice it led to the secession of the northern Tuareg minority. By April 2012, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) had established control of “Azawad,” including the ancient cities Gao and Timbuktu, and the government’s incompetent response to the crisis had provoked a military coup. The new government began a more aggressive campaign against the rebels that drew talk of economic sanctions.

Up to this point it had been a typical African war, but enter the Islamists, the Movement for Openness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA) and Ansar Dine (a militant Islamist organization). Originally minor figures in the rebel army, they seized a few cities in their own right and imposed a strict variant of Sharia Law. This independent conquest created a schism between nationalists and Islamists. The MNLA found itself between a rock and a hard place in the three way-war for Mali. They made peace with the Malian government in exchange for limited autonomy, allowing both to focus on fighting the Islamists. France – which used to hold Mali as a colony – has contributed ground and air forces, and the United Nations has agreed to a West African intervention force. The government has made considerable gains, forcing rebels into the mountainous northeast where experts anticipate a long guerrilla war.

Conflict anywhere in the world spurs superpowers to wonder about their response. As of this writing, Washington has committed only to logistical support, leaving American options open. But what does the United States stand to gain or lose in this situation? The presence of Islamist militants might imply that Mali is part of the greater “War on Terror.” According to this approach, it is just another battlefield in which the forces of Jihad are attempting to impose Sharia, terrorize innocents, and destroy freedom.

To a certain extent, such claims are true. When MOJWA seizes control of a region, it imposes Sharia law. The Islamists have publically executed people for everything from petty theft to having a child outside of wedlock. Whenever Islamist forces approach a city, thousands flee before them. They are brutal enemies of freedom –which is actually why the “War on Terror” argument does not hold. Islamists have but two paths to victory, bullets or ballots. Only the moderate can achieve the latter; they must reserve atrocities for minorities, as demonstrated by Egypt and Libya.

The coalition between former rebels and the Malian government has consistently defeated the Islamists. With foreign intervention backing the coalition, an Islamist conquest of Mali is unlikely. Ansar Dine and MOJWA are not Al Qaeda affiliates, so the threat is local at worst. They want to establish Islamic law, not destroy the “Great Satan.” The nations of West Africa have demonstrated the will to restore order should the need arise. Mali is far from being a new front of the War on Terror, so it offers little promise for the United States.

An American intervention in Mali would also be a bad geopolitical move. West Africa quite Western in outlook: it has strong relations with Europe, is active hostile to Jihad, and is no pawn of China or Russia. The war is going well; neither Mali nor necessity demands our involvement. The United States should not risk alienating a friend.

The most compelling argument is not what the United States cannot win, but what it might lose. While Mali has been successful in securing its territory, Islamist forces are likely to wage a long guerrilla war. The Pentagon can wage another such war, but the American people are weary of counter-insurgency. Further, the burden of deficit and debt is ending the days of unlimited military spending. Popular distaste and scarce resources could easily force the United States into a premature withdrawal. 
Such a scenario harkens back to 1993, when the Black Hawk Down incident turned the American people against the intervention in Somalia. Osama bin Laden, observing the “frailty, weakness, and cowardice” of U.S. failure in Africa, was inspired to pursue the 9/11 attacks. The decidedly Texan response – bombing, invasion, and saber-rattling – sent a clear message: the former paper tiger is now a vengeful warlord. In dealing with an enemy that respects strength alone, this tactic is more useful than any dose of democratization. 
Though this image has atrophied since the deposition of Saddam Hussein, it remains in part. But Somalia erased memory of far greater victories in the Cold War and Desert Storm; a display of weakness in Mali could do the same, inviting terrorist aggression. In this day and age, the United States must not commit to war unless it can guarantee a swift conclusion. 
Americans should applaud Mali: her factions have united against tyranny and are winning. Regardless of whether the French or West African interventions were necessary, Mali does not need American help, especially when such assistance does not serve the interests of the United States. That Mali has fallen into war is tragic, but the war promises a victory for the United States and all of the West so long as Washington resists the temptation to interfere.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s