Crisis in the Sahara

Over the past few weeks, with the Second Inauguration of Barack Obama as a backdrop, a mostly-ignored crisis has been unfolding in North Africa.  As President Obama declared at his inauguration that “a decade of warfare is ending,” the United States began aiding France with their bombing campaign in Mali, to little fanfare, fulfilling President Obama’s actual foreign policy goal: to maintain an American global presence, with little accountability here or abroad.

Meanwhile, over the inaugural weekend, to the north of Mali in neighboring Algeria, a hostage crisis at a British Petroleum natural gas plant ended violently; at the time of this writing, 37 hostages were killed, 3 of which were American.  Details are still unclear, and the situation is sensitive, but the mind recalls another inaugural hostage crisis 32 years ago with a happier ending.

The events in Algeria and Mali are intrinsically linked, not just by the actors therein, but by the actions which spurred them.  To properly confront the crisis at hand, we must also confront our contributions to the crisis, for as Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

The Baggage

The current situation in Mali - a nation with twice as many people as Libya – comes as a consequence of NATO’s 2011 Libyan intervention.  During the Libyan uprising, nomadic Touaregs from Mali and Niger were recruited to fight against Libyan rebels on behalf of Muammar Gaddafi.  When Gaddafi’s forces were overrun by the civilian population (with NATO assistance), the Touaregs fled back to Mali (with NATO-supplied weaponry) and aligned with jihadists to fight the US-trained Malian Army and seize the northern part of the country, naming the Texas-sized territory “Azawad.”  The standoff lasted three months until June 2012, when the jihadists, including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), turned on the Touaregs, including the groups Ansar Dine and the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA), seizing Azawad and pushing south.  By January 2013, it seemed the whole of Mali - the third largest supplier of gold on the continent but with very few oil reserves - would fall to radical Islam.

Enter France, who on January 11, 2013, at the request of the Malian government under siege, began a bombing campaign in Mali coupled with 2,500 French soldiers on the ground.  French intervention in Mali carries its own baggage; Mali shook off French colonialism and became its own country in 1959.

As 2,500 French soldiers cannot hold a country the size of Texas by themselves, it was a matter of time before France asked America for support.  Note these two paragraphs from the Wall Street Journal:

France has asked the U.S. to provide logistical support, including aircraft to move French troops and heavy equipment, and refueling planes that would allow French fighters to stay in the air longer. Paris has also asked the U.S. to provide surveillance assets, both drones and satellites, to intercept rebel communications and assess their movements, according to Western officials. Any U.S. support would be nonlethal, a senior Obama administration official said, adding: “They’re not asking us to pull the trigger.”

Administration lawyers are assessing whether providing support planes and intelligence that could be used in French targeting decisions would make the U.S. complicit in French strikes.

According to a Defense Department official, it was reported Tuesday, “U.S. Air Force cargo jets have begun shuttling French troops and military equipment to Mali.”  The military actions taken rely on “Administration lawyers,” bypassing both Congress and the UN Security Council, as America once again fight both sides of a war in support of France’s military adventurism.

Anti-Western sentiments run deep in Algeria, who unlike Mali, fought France for eight years to gain their independence in 1962.  As Algeria has allowed the French to use their airspace for their bombing campaign, jihadists seized the opportunity to take hostages at the natural gas plant.  A senior Algerian official has stated, “Several Egyptian members of the squad of militants that lay bloody siege to an Algerian gas complex last week also took part in the deadly attack on the United States Mission in (Benghazi) Libya in September.”

It’s also worth noting the Algerian hostage takers demanded the release of “Blind Sheikh” Omar Abdel-Rahman, who is serving a life sentence in the United States for the speech crime known as ”seditious conspiracy,” and has been a popular bargaining chip for both jihadists such as Al Qaeda’s Ayman Al-Zawahiri, and heads of state, such as Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi.

The Reckoning

It’s arguably demonstrable that our intervention in Libya has played a role in the unfoldings in both Mali and Algeria.  And while Al Qaeda spreading into North Africa to secure a base in Mali would be unacceptable - although they would be somewhat inert force in the Sahara Desert – we must acknowledge that to think of Al Qaeda in traditional terms, as some static amorphous blob, is misguided.  It is a body like any other, growing and dying simultaneously.  The obvious distinction with groups like Al Qaeda is it maintains no flag, and therfore no nationality.  It is ever more apparent now that we face a globalized threat, as the coup leader in Mali had received military training in America, and some of the jihadist hostage takers in Algeria were Canadians.

As Al Qaeda’s sole purpose is to fight the West with acts of terrorism, we must examine the actions, such asmeddling in civil wars, that have encouraged our enemies’ growth, have provided them both targets on the ground and opportunities for recruitment.  In some cases, we have even provided our enemies with weapons and training.  And as our “broken foreign policy establishment” now turns to Mali, Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic writes:

In America, complicated interventions are declared urgent and mandatory by conventional wisdom, though few people shaping it know much about the country involved.  Successes are confidently pronounced so prematurely that anyone with common sense should be able to see that the full consequences aren’t yet evident.  And when the unintended consequences manifest themselves, no one stands up and says that they failed to accurately predict the fallout of the intervention that they touted.  The foreign policy establishment and many of the journalists that cover them just repeat the process over and over again, their confidence unaffected.  How does an establishment that fails so often manage it?

Whereas “dissent was patriotic” under the Bush Administration, over the past four years the legitimacy of American dominance has been sacrosanct, with Republicans unwilling to admit mistakes and Democrats unwilling to question Barack Obama.  In the wake of the Arab Spring, with the assassination of US Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi, and with spotty results in the newfound Egyptian, Libyan, and Tunisian democracies, it’s time to reassess Obama’s policy actions in North Africa.  Our conventional wisdom about warfare and insurgency must subside, and we must shift our focus, like it or not, to analyze the true motivations of our enemy.

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