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What should the U.S. do in Mali?

The moment U.S. armed forces are deployed somewhere, that place moves to the top of the pundit queue.  As a result, the bylaws of the International Brotherhood of Foreign Policy Pundits mandates that I blog something about Mali of a higher quality than my glib post from last month.  So here goes. 

In a refreshing change of pace from to Previous Armed Forces Deployments that will Go Unamed, the New York Times is already voicing questions about the purpose of this mission.  Indeed, Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt litter their front-pager with some "first principle" questions to U.S. foreign policy principals: 

The administration has embraced a targeted killing strategy elsewhere, notably in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, after top White House, Pentagon and C.I.A. officials determined that militants in those countries were bent on attacking the United States.

Asked if fighters from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb posed such an imminent threat, Gen. Carter F. Ham, the top American commander in Africa, said, “Probably not.” But, he said in an interview, “they subscribe to Al Qaeda’s ideology” and have said that their intent is to attack Westerners in Europe and, “if they could, back to the United States.”

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta made it clear on Wednesday that he considered the group a serious danger. “This is an Al Qaeda operation,” he told reporters while traveling in Italy, “and it is for that reason that we have always been concerned about their presence in Mali, because they would use it as a base of operations to do exactly what happened in Algeria.”....

[W]hat remained an open question, at least until last Friday, was whether the militant threat in Mali was serious enough to justify military intervention. Now, the context of that debate has changed.

General Ham put the matter succinctly in the interview, which took place last Friday, just hours after he learned about the French incursion into Mali.

“The real question,” he said as he raced off to a secure teleconference with senior Obama administration officials, “is now what?”  (emphasis added)

Now, admirably, the Financial Times' Xan Rice does explain rather concisely what France's aims are in Mali:  

France has three aims in Mali: to stop the Islamist insurgents’ advance on the capital; to help the government regain control of the north of the country; and to leave the country with a stable government.

But the strength of the well-trained Islamist militant forces points to a protracted intervention in the country where rebels maintain control of two towns in the centre of Mali, while Jean-Yves Le Drian, French defence minister, this week acknowledged the campaign was “very difficult”.  (emphasis added)

Now, the tricky part of all this for the U.S. government is that while the first goal seems easy enough to achieve, the second seems much harder.  And, most important, the United States has been trying to accomplish the third goal for the past decade -- and it turns out we kind of suck at it

In 2005, PSI was replaced by the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP), a partnership of State, Defense and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) meant to focus on improving individual country and regional capabilities in northwest Africa.

According to a Government Accountability Office study, Mali got roughly $37 million in TSCTP funds from 2005 through 2008. More than half went to Defense projects. But GAO reported that there were bureaucratic differences over the programs and funding problems. “USAID received funds for its TSCTP activities in Mali in 2005 and 2007, but not in 2006,” for example. “Because it received no funds for 2006, the mission suspended a peace-building program in northern Mali,” the area with the greatest threat.

So the initial reporting suggests that the U.S. is about to blunder into another far-flung overseas operation in no small part caused by prior U.S. f**k-ups with no end in sight and a hostile population on the ground.  Right? 

Not so fast.  Contrary to the claims of some militant anti-interventionists, the U.S. counter-terrorism policy didn't cause the problems in Mali.  And, indeed, based on this survey of Northern Mali villagers conducted by some kick-ass political scientists early last year, it would seem that the locals would welcome further U.S. involvement, particularly on the humanitarian side of the equation:

The majority of our respondents were in favor of military intervention: 78% said it was worth the fight, 9% wanted to peacefully separate, and 23% were undecided (July). When asked how the northern crisis should be resolved, 50% of our respondents mentioned negotiations, while 60% cited military intervention as important to restore territorial integrity (May). Most respondents who felt that military intervention was necessary preferred exclusively domestic involvement by the Malian military (43% of respondents).  Of those citing the need for foreign intervention, the US was the most popular of the potential allies (23% of respondents favored US intervention), followed by France (18%) and then ECOWAS (15%).  In light of changing public opinion in Bamako it is possible that if asked today, villagers would be more pro-foreign intervention and pro-French....

We asked villagers the open-ended question: what policy area would you prioritize if you were President of Mali? Most individuals prioritized human development issues (health, education, water, agricultural support) both before and after the rebellion. In the January baseline survey, 51% of respondents cited development issues, while 9% mentioned peace and security. After the villagers found themselves on the border of rebel-controlled territory, 67% cited development issues and 14% peace and security (July). Regardless of the level of political stability, the vast majority of respondents would focus on basic human development needs.

Foreign policy pundits are just like the rest of the monkey-brain population -- we like to put things in clear conceptual boxes -- particularly when we lack specific knowledge of the particulars, as is the case with Mali.  It will be easy, in the coming days, to put Mali into the "Afghanistan" box (bad) or the "Libya" box (good or bad depending on your partisan affiliation) or what have you.  Given that France and the West African countries are willing to shoulder the primary military burden of this engagement, however, it would seem that the U.S. could ramp up some humanitartian assistance for the affected areas.  That doesn't mean that hard questions should not be asked about the scope and purpose of the U.S. mission in the Sahel.  It does mean that those questions might have some surprising answers, however. 

What do you think? 

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