Last month, the U.S. provided support to the French forces in Mali that temporarily rolled back Islamist radicals who have controlled northern Mali for the past year. On Feb.18, Sen. Chris Coons, Chairman of the Senate’s Africa Sub-committee, said the U.S. should resume military aid to Mali as soon as elections are held there. On Feb. 22, the President notified Congress - without explanation - that 40 US military personnel have already deployed to next-door Niger. Unnamed Pentagon officials told the media that the 40 troops represent the first of 300 headed for Niger to operate and defend two Predator surveillance drones. I must have missed the public debate over this decision.
For decades, a hodgepodge of Arab and Tuareg fighters, Islamist fanatics and assorted criminals have terrorized the dismal towns of the Sahara desert. In October 2011, when the Qadaffi regime next door in Libya collapsed, a flood of weapons crossed into the bordering countries. Within months, radical Islamists calling themselves “Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb” (AQIM) muscled several competing groups out of the way and claimed control of northern Mali.
The Islamists imposed harsh Shari’a law, complete with amputations and beatings. Although very unpopular with the common people (who practice a mix of moderate Islam and traditional beliefs), the AQIM thugs encountered little resistance. Western countries watched these events with trepidation.
When it began to appear that all of Mali might fall to the rebels, France intervened and drove the AQIM forces from the northern cities. But the radicals are far from defeated. They remain in the region, hiding in plain sight, with the local population too fearful to help root them out. That would seem to argue for a longer French presence in Mali, but on Feb. 20, the French Defense Minister announced that French troops will be leaving that country “in a few weeks.” Maybe the French know something we don’t.
So what does all this have to do with the U.S.? It appears that the President has already made the decision to create a base for drones (”Unmanned Aerial Systems” in military jargon) in Niger. We signed a “Status of Forces Agreement” Jan. 28 that provides legal safeguards for U.S. forces there. Now, a contingent of 250 to 300 troops will soon be on the ground.
We should be clear-eyed about what a new military commitment in north Africa means. Mali is currently ruled by a military dictator. Niger, since gaining independence in 1960, has had five constitutions, three bloody coups and decades of dictatorship, corruption and decline. Today, both are among the world’s poorest countries. In Mali, slavery is still practiced. Islamist factions operate in many parts of both countries.
We need to consider what happens when our money flows into these places and destabilizes the tenuous balance among the country’s warring factions, as it surely will. What will we do when our soldiers or contractors are kidnapped (a favorite tactic in the region)? Will the intelligence to be gained be worth the price of new, and seemingly open-ended commitments in a region about which we know little? In the destitute countries of the Sahara, isn’t education and development aid more likely to win support for democracy than a new fountain of funds for current and former coup leaders?
Since post-colonial times, the countries of north Africa have been the realm of the French. They have competent military forces with substantial African experience, long-standing intelligence links, and significant economic interests there. Yet they have decided not to stick around. We need to decide whether our involvement won’t simply inflame the Islamists against the U.S. in another place that poses no direct threat to our security.
Before venturing deeper into this, our elected representatives need to explain: with what goal? for how long? and at what cost? Our troops are on the verge of extracting themselves from a decade-long conflict in Afghanistan - a place where we also lacked a coherent strategy and worthy local allies. Have we not learned from that experience?
Jack Segal served 35 years in the US Foreign Service, NATO and at the National Security Council. He lives in Traverse City.