Before we unpack that statement, a little background on the current situation in Mali. Until last year, Mali had been considered one of the more successful states in West Africa, though a state that still dealt with a long-simmering issue of civil unrest in the northern part of the country where separatists hoped to carve out their own homeland. In one of the great examples of the law of unintended consequences, this bid received a massive shot in the arm from the US/French/British-led campaign to support the rebels in Libya in their bid to oust Moammar Gadhafi. His overthrow meant the return of thousands of Tuareg mercenaries, formerly employed by Gadhafi, to their homelands in northern Mali, where they teamed up with al-Qadea-leaning militias and turned a minor bit of civil unrest into a full-blown civil war.
The Malian army, not happy with the way the war was being run, staged a coup, overthrowing Mali's president (The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald notes this is a double-irony for the West since the coup was led by a US-trained army captain). With no functioning military, the Tuareg/al-Qaeda alliance took control over half of the country before having their own setback when the Islamist militias turned on their Tuareg allies. 2012 ended with the situation in Mali an utter mess and Mali's neighbors pleading for assistance to prevent Mali from turning into a failed state haven for al-Qaeda-linked groups.
The US has been promoting a strategy built on the “Somali model”, at least the most recent version of foreign intervention in Somalia, which has been the most successful in the past 20 years. In practice, this means providing funding and logistical support to troops from neighboring African nations who will do the actual fighting. In Somalia this, has been a mix of primarily Ugandan, Kenyan, Ethiopian troops who have managed to largely defeat Somalia's homegrown Islamist militia, al-Shabaab, and restore some semblance of a functioning government to Somalia.
That was the plan, at least for Mali as well, until last week when the French began spearheading their own much more direct intervention, which started with airstrikes against Islamist positions, most notably surrounding the city of Gao. There are now also reports of French special forces troops on the ground in Mali. Why France decided to launch their Mali mission is a topic that is actively being discussed, though it could likely be because the force of 2,000-3,000 peacekeepers from a collection of West African nations would not have been ready to deploy for several months, perhaps not until September, and perhaps not even then.
And that brings us back to our unnamed US military source. He/she goes on to add: “Air strikes are fine. But pretty soon you run out of easy targets. Then what do you do? What do you do when they [the militias] head up into the mountains?” Sadly, since he/she is anonymous, it is impossible to know if they asked these same important questions when the US went stumbling into Afghanistan and Iraq. Perhaps they are offering up these comments as a sort of advice, hard-won knowledge from the foibles of those two US interventions. But it is hard not to read these comments as being both hypocritical and condescending given the past decade of US foreign involvement, our continued questionable presence in Afghanistan and the calls by the DC warhawks, particularly those of the neoconservative stripe, for a US campaign against Iran, yet another military mission that is unlikely to achieve its tactical goal – elimination of Iran's nuclear program – while possessing a high likelihood of spurring a whole chain of unexpected and unintended consequences.
The “Somali model” idea pushed by the United States sounds good on paper, the problem is that while Somalia had several neighbors with large populations – Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia – to supply troops, the would-be ECOWAS force for Mali is being drawn from a collection of fairly small states like Ghana and Sierra Leone, not countries known for having large and robust armies. Nigeria is the one large neighbor that is pledging troops, but Nigeria is also dealing with their own separatist movement (MEND – the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) and their own Islamist uprising (Boko Harum), so it is hard to understand why the Nigerians would then suddenly have such better luck when operating in Mali when they have struggled so much against these two groups at home. The proposed Malian peacekeeping force is also made up of only 2,000-3,000 soldiers; by contrast, the Ugandans alone contributed up to 16,000 troops to the ANISOM mission in Somalia.
Our unnamed source is asking some good and important questions, but they are questions that highlight the problem with the international community since 9/11: there is now a far greater motivation to intervene in troubled nations (especially when supposed “al-Qaeda” forces are involved) and to intervene right away! But these proposed interventions are launched without clear military objectives in mind, and more importantly, without a plan for the “day after” the initial military campaign is launched, or in other words, without an exit strategy. The United States has spent 12 years trying to find a way out of Afghanistan, you have to wonder if France will now find that it was very easy to get into Mali, but that it will be very hard to get out.