January 19, 2013
France, whose colony Mali was, reacted. President Francois Hollande sent planes to bomb the Islamists and 2,500 French soldiers to recapture Diabaly. That battle is now underway.
The 16-nation Economic Community of West African States has talked of raising an army to recapture the north. Thus far it has been just that, talk. While the United States has provided logistical and intelligence support to the French, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says there will be no U.S. boots on the ground.
French troops and air power can probably clear and hold the south, but who is going to march north to drive AQIM and its allies out?
Twenty-five hundred French soldiers could not both invade and hold Azawad. Even should they recapture northern towns like Timbuktu, they could not hold the region against a determined guerrilla war that al-Qaida and its allies could mount.
Yet Hollande says he will restore the territorial integrity of Mali.
French bombing is already causing civilian casualties. This could produce blowback in France, where thousands of Malians have emigrated. Many French yet remember the homeland terrorism as they fought their eight-year war from 1954 to 1962 to hold Algeria.
This week’s seizure of Western hostages in Algeria is Islamist retaliation for Algeria’s having allowed France to use its airspace in the attacks in Mali. And as Syria’s civil war has brought jihadis on the run, an Islamist war against France in the Sahel region of Africa could do the same.
And how would Muslims of an inflamed Middle East accept another Western war against soldiers of the Prophet?
While Mali is of little geostrategic value, a huge and secure base camp for al-Qaida in northern Mali presents serious problems for the United States.
Al-Qaida in Mali is reportedly in contact with the terrorists of Boko Haram, who have been murdering Christians and burning their churches in Nigeria. And the reports that Islamists entered Mali from Mauritania suggest this cancer is metastasizing.
What should be done?
The United States cannot fight Mali’s war. No vital interest is imperiled there, and this could lead to an Afghanistan in the heart of Africa. But if America is not going to take the lead in recapturing the Azawad for Mali, who is? France? ECOWAS? NATO? Algeria?
Without America, the will is not there, the weapons are not there, the troops are not there.
As we consider our options, however, let us hear no more from President Obama about al-Qaida being “on the run” and “on the path to defeat.”