As with so much else in national security policy, until there is a tragedy the public, media and congressional overseers lose focus when it comes to countries like Mali and Algeria, unknown to many Americans and not the sites of major U.S. operations. That is going to change quickly with the taking of hostages by Algerian Islamists and early unconfirmed reports that some were killed in a botched rescue attempt. We should be wary of any early reports from Algeria, which long-time observers note is historically prone to sketchy, misleading first reports. (The State Department, quite correctly, is not likely to comment until the reports can be verified and the status of any remaining hostages can be confirmed.)


Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

Reuters, which is operating from local, uncorroborated media sources in the area, reports:

Six foreign hostages and eight of their captors were killed when Algerian forces fired on a vehicle being used by besieged gunmen at a gas plant in the remote Algerian desert on Thursday, a local source told Reuters.

 

Mauritania’s ANI news agency, which has been in constant contact with the kidnappers, said seven hostages were still being held: two Americans, three Belgians, one Japanese and one British citizen.

This follows, of course, the action by the French to intervene in Mali, trying to stem the tide of Islamism that has swept over the northern part of the country and made it a safe haven under the rule of al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb. A weakened central government, another so-called failed state, was overwhelmed by terrorists last year, including Mali fighters who had helped throw out Moammar Gaddafi. The terrorists proceeded to set up an autonomous terrorist region in the north. Former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams explained:

Prior to last week the international planning to help Mali was completely inadequate. A plan approved by the UN Security Council called for 5,500 MDF[Mali Defense Forces] troops to be backed by several thousand troops from neighboring African states that, like Mali, are members of ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States. But the MDF no longer has 5,500 soldiers to field; the ECOWAS troops will be slow in coming and they are untrained and unequipped for desert warfare; and the months needed to get such a force ready would give AQIM useful time to get stronger and take more territory.

 

Indeed they began to move south and seeing the dangers France acted. . . . .A negotiated political solution between the central government and northern groups is what Mali needs, but that will be impossible until the government is strengthened and AQIM is dealt a severe military setback. So France’s intervention is critical and must be helped to succeed. President Hollande has made a difficult and indeed dangerous decision: AQ has already made threats about terrorist attacks inside France. France deserves our full support.

France acted on its own, to be candid, because the United States had been dithering, trying unsuccessfully to come up with an approach to Mali. This is one more instance in which the United States has been trailing, not leading events. Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute tells me, ” As the French government has realized, you can’t kill all the terrorists everywhere with remote-control drones. Sometimes nations need to lead in order to prevent greater threats to come; that used to be America’s role, and we have the resources to do it. Now it will be France’s. But can France protect the American people from al-Qaeda — which is hardly on its heels — forever?”

While we were figuring out the extent of our support, the rebels struck back, the Wall Street Journal explained, “A French effort to drive Islamist militants from neighboring Mali that began with airstrikes last week expanded on Wednesday with the first sustained fighting on the ground. France’s top target, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, claimed responsibility for the Algeria kidnappings, calling it retaliation. The claim couldn’t be verified, although AQIM has its origins in Algeria and operates across a swath of Africa.”

Many critics of the administration’s “leading from behind” say we should be doing more to assist the French effort. Former ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton e-mails, “The French and British are already strained, just in carrying out the Libya operation so far. Why are we not doing more? Administration still argues the [Global War on Terror] is over and we won, so getting more involved is another admission of failure. And another admission, like the Benghazi tragedy on September 11, [2012,] that they have completely botched policy after [Gaddafi's] overthrow.”

This is part and parcel of the very same policy failures that lead to the debacle in Benghazi. Jonathan Schanzer tells me this morning, “We have no affiliate group policy.” President Obama took a victory lap when Osama bin Laden was killed but not even the Benghazi episode has spurred serious thinking about how to deal with AQIM and the network of affiliated and loosely affiliated terror groups that now seem to be spreading throughout northern Africa.

In the Senate report on Benghazi, the committee chided the administration: “U.S. intelligence agencies must broaden and deepen their focus in Libya, and beyond, on nascent violent Islamist extremist groups in the region that lack strong operational ties to core al Qaeda or its main affiliate groups. One benefit of doing so would be improved tactical warning capabilities, the kind of which were not present at Benghazi, but might have been even for an ‘opportunistic’ attack.” Even more specifically, the senators found that AFRICOM, one of the Defense Department’s six combat commands, had a “lack of operational assets near Benghazi [that] hindered its capacity to evacuate U.S. personnel during the attacks.” They recommended, “Because Africa has increasingly become a haven for terrorist groups in places like Libya and Mali, DOD should provide more assets and personnel within range on land and sea to protect and defend both Americans and our allies on the African continent.” After Libya, the AFRICOM commander was replaced and a the creation of a rapid reaction force was announced. The Defense Department and White House should explain what has been done and what operational plans we have for dealing with future situations.

Schanzer points out that the suspected leader of the Algerian operation was designated a terrorist six years ago, yet he continued to operate, organize, recruit and now carry out a kidnapping that may have resulted in more American deaths. It is problematic that we now have dropped capture and interrogation of terrorists in favor of drones, limiting our ability to gather intelligence. And it is even more troublesome that as the threats multiple the administration is busy hollowing out the force. Will our already meager intelligence, limited forces and response readiness improve or degrade, do you think, when we cut hundreds of billions?

This is yet another example of the delinquency and lack of attention to national security matters that has plagued the administration for four years. Too bad the president has nominated for defense secretary someone who thinks the biggest problem we have is “bloat” in the Pentagon.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.