The Obama White House, it appears, doesn’t view the raging conflict in North and West Africa as dangerous enough to merit much involvement, while the U.S. military views the situation as quite serious indeed. That’s the takeaway from a story in the Los Angeles Times:
Although no one is suggesting that the groups pose an imminent threat to the United States, the French military intervention in Mali and a terrorist attack against an international gas complex in neighboring Algeria have prompted sharp Obama administration debate over whether the militants present enough of a risk to U.S. allies or interests to warrant a military response.
Some top Pentagon officials and military officers warn that without more aggressive U.S. action, Mali could become a haven for extremists, akin to Afghanistan before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Militants in Mali, “if left unaddressed, … will obtain capability to match their intent — that being to extend their reach and control and to attack American interests,” Army Gen. Carter Ham, head of the U.S. Africa Command, said in an interview.
But many of Obama’s top aides say it is unclear whether the Mali insurgents, who include members of the group Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, threaten the U.S.
Those aides also worry about being drawn into a messy and possibly long-running conflict against an elusive enemy in Mali, a vast landlocked country abutting the Sahara desert, just as U.S. forces are withdrawing from Afghanistan. . . .
Another U.S. official, who is regularly briefed on such intelligence, said the groups’ goals were often hard to distinguish.
“AQIM and its allies have opportunistic criminals and smugglers in their midst, but they also have some die-hard terrorists with more grandiose visions,” the official said. “In some cases, the roles may overlap.” . . .
The piece goes on to explain that these sentiments are part of the reason why, so far, the U.S. has been reluctant to get involved in Mali. France is particularly in need of the U.S.’s prodigious airlift capacity and our in-air refueling assets, which will expedite the deployment of French troops to the region and increase their effectiveness there by allowing for better air cover. That isn’t the only issue, though: The U.S. is currently prohibited by our own procedures from directly aiding the Malian military, France’s main partner for now, because the current government gained power in a military coup.
It’s a fair point that the Islamists France is fighting in Mali do not currently pose an apparent threat to the U.S. homeland. Groups allied with these militants now have American blood on their hands in Libya and Algeria, but making those countries safe for our citizens and our interests does not demand intervention in the way it may have for France (nor would U.S. intervention, maybe, have been as feasible as the Françafrique operation). But the risk of the Sahel and the Sahara becoming a haven for global terrorism, a “new Afghanistan,” however simplistic that analogy is, seems quite real. Further, Islamist extremism has no hold on much of the region (southern Mali, southwest Africa, etc. — predominantly Muslim regions but peaceful and mostly tolerant ones for now), but jihad was literally rapidly advancing south this month until France began its intervention — that surely is also worthy of American concern.
The situation deserves better consideration than dismissals along the lines of “not another war in another big dusty landlocked country.” This is especially the case when those countries — France and ECOWAS — who do see a Sahel operation as being in their crucial interests could benefit greatly from the U.S.’s unique capabilities, which we can provide without immense cost or risk.
UPDATE: The U.S. has begun begun airlift operations for the French, which had been expected but unconfirmed, almost two weeks after France’s operation started. The NYT:
The United States military said on Tuesday that it had begun airlifting French troops and equipment from a base in southern France to Bamako, the capital of Mali, aboard giant C-17 transport planes.
Two flights arrived on Monday and a third on Tuesday, and the airlift will continue for the next several days, Tom Saunders, a spokesman for the United States Africa Command, said in a telephone interview from the command’s headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany.
Canada has been providing one of its four C-17s since last week, while Britain has been providing two of its eight large cargo jets. According to IHS, France has actually had to lease two private-sector Russian aircraft, too. The regional African troops now being deployed to Mali are also being delayed by lack of strategic airlift capacity.