Mali: An Early Test of U.S. Military Policy in 2013

By Anna Jensen-Clem

In keeping with this week’s theme of President Obama’s second term military policies, we turn to a brief analysis of the situation in Mali. Humanosphere has a list of resources for those of you who aren’t familiar with the current political turmoil happening there. Essentially, in conjunction with a coup in March 2012, several terrorist and rebel groups overtook the northern (desert) part of the country; al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has been active in North Africa (Mali, Algeria, Niger, and Libya, among others) for several years. After the coup, AQIM pushed out existing Tuareg rebel groups and took over most of the northern territory. They have since moved south and imposed their own interpretation of sharia law, causing a massive human rights and refugee crisis. In late August, PBS ran a brief story about human rights abuses perpetrated by AQIM, and many of these practices continue today.

The situation is extremely confusing; the New York Times reported Wednesday that “officials in Washington still have only an impressionistic understanding of the militant groups . . . and they are divided about whether some of these groups even pose a threat to the United States.” French troops arrived earlier this month to assist government forces and eliminate the terrorist threat, but so far the United States hasn’t committed any troops, nor has it expressed any intention of doing so. In fact, when he was asked about a response to the situation, the top U.S. general in Africa said only, “now what?”

Now, what does this all mean from a policy perspective? Why am I writing about this at all? In short, because the U.S.’s response to this problem is a microcosm of the Obama Administration’s handling of military power. Although it seems unlikely that the United States will commit large numbers of ground forces, as it did in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military has made use of its existing intelligence networks in Mali to assist French forces. Relying on small groups of highly-trained special forces, large-scale established intelligence networks, and a 21st-century version of Kennan’s containment policy, the Obama Administration has been slow to take direct military action against AQIM forces in West Africa. In fact, the Washington Post reported last year that special forces “have played an outsize role in the Obama administration’s national security strategy, [and] are working clandestinely all over the globe, not just in war zones.” A large-scale ground war would be extremely costly, both financially and in terms of lives lost; Mali is larger in area than France and the desert in the north is barren and treacherous. Al-Qaeda and Tuareg forces know the area intimately, and sending in ground troops could prove disastrous.

It remains to be seen whether those groups pose a direct threat to U.S. security, but their actions have already precipitated a large-scale health and refugee crisis. Whichever road the Obama Administration chooses, humanitarian aid should play a major role, not only in Mali, but in neighboring countries who are absorbing thousands of refugees despite their own political and economic instabilities. It is this confluence of small, highly-trained military forces, extensive intelligence networks, and humanitarian aid in lieu of a massive ground assault that should and will guide the United States’ interactions in the Sahel over the coming months.