Is Mali another loss for counterinsurgency?

January 15, 2013

A Malian troop looks through the bushes after a raid. (SERGE DANIEL/AFP/Getty Images)

In 2009, as the White House deliberated on how to reinvent U.S. strategy for the Afghan War that had already waged for nearly eight years, key players in the Obama administration divided into two factions.

On one side were proponents of counterinsurgency, led by General Stanley McChrystal, then the top U.S. officer in Afghanistan. The strategy was costly but had seen some real success in Iraq just a few years earlier. It called for thousands of additional troops to essentially stand in for the frail Afghan police and military with hopes of, in the parlance of its adherents, protecting the population and creating space for a political solution. 

Vice President Joe Biden, at first on his own but then joined by a few others in the White House, opposed any escalation. He argued that the U.S. should focus instead on sending drones and special forces from off-shore to target al-Qaeda. His plan was not to leave Afghanistan and the Taliban to their own devices, exactly, but he did not share McChrystal's conviction that al-Qaeda could only be defeated by first removing their popular support.

The counterinsurgents eventually won out, and President Obama announced that December that he would send 33,000 "surge" troops as part of the new approach. Just under three years later, the U.S. quietly withdrew the last of those additional troops, symbolically ending the counterinsurgency effort that had failed to reproduce the relative successes of Iraq. The drones and the special forces seem likely to stay on. The vice president probably has the good sense not to say it out loud, but his position seems to have won out.

Counterinsurgency may have lost out again, and in a conflict that is already – though perhaps prematurely – being compared to the early years of Afghanistan. The U.S. effort in Mali was barely a fraction of that in Afghanistan, but, after a series of major and at times embarrassing setbacks, it has been pushed aside. This time, though, it's not Vice President Biden on the other side: it's France. 

The French military is expanding a unilateral intervention into Mali, a former colony in West Africa, to roll back the Islamist extremists who had already seized half the country.  The high-profile assault is not really in the mold of either counterinsurgency or the Biden-backed light footprint: it's more of a traditional military campaign, one that several neighboring African states are planning to support with ground troops of their own. It's possible that the setbacks facing the U.S.-style approach were only temporary and could recover, but French leaders seem to believe that their time was up.

In earlier years, the U.S. military had attempted a sort of pre-counterinsurgency in the vast Sahara region that includes northern Mali. American officers and special forces trained local counterparts who were to, as the U.S. had set out to do in Afghanistan, protect the population, take out terrorists, and combat any emerging threats from within. But the local counterparts ended up defecting, bringing their expertise (and their new equipment) over to the enemy, the New York Times reports. One of the U.S.-trained officers in the Mali military staged a coup, giving the Islamists their big opportunity.

The collapse of the U.S.-led effort could be seen, whether rightly or wrongly, as another setback for counterinsurgency. General David Petraeus's achievements in Iraq in 2007 and 2008 helped give counterinsurgency, like Petraeus himself, something of a golden reputation, a remarkable achievement given how badly the war had damaged the records of earlier leaders such as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. But both Petraeus and McChrystal, the two names most closely associated with the strategy, fell to personal scandals. As success failed to materialize in Afghanistan, the veneer came off of counterinsurgency.

The U.S. opposed France's frontal assault on Mali, warning, according to the Times' summary, "that a Western assault on the Islamist stronghold could rally jihadists around the world and prompt terrorist attacks as far away as Europe." This view may turn out to be correct; analyst Aaron Zelin, who monitors online "jihadi" forums, has described that community as "foaming at the mouth" over the French intervention. But it is also one rooted in some of the same thinking that guide counterinsurgency: that overt military action can at times foster violent extremism more than reduce it, that popular opinion and radical groups are often the root of the problem.

As in Afghanistan, Mali is becoming a case where two very different military ideologies clash. Whether one proves more successful than the other, or if both ultimately fail this West African country, only time will tell for sure.

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