When France opened the newest front in the war on terror last week with the swoosh of its aircraft over the desert in central Mali, the U.S. found itself in an unfamiliar position: on the sidelines.
American officials said they would support the French assault on Mali’s Islamist insurgents with intelligence, drone flights and funding. But there’s no talk of U.S. pilots joining the fray, as they did in Libya after the French initiated an aerial campaign against Moammar Gadhafi, and certainly no talk of American combat forces entering Mali.
Indeed, the French intervention in Mali in response to an urgent appeal from the Malian government marked the collapse of what had been the U.S. model for countering Islamist extremism in Africa: Letting Africa solve the problem, with some friendly behind-the-scenes help from the West. African leaders acknowledge that the hope they could take the lead in battling Islamist extremists had vanished.
"What was approved by the Security Council was African-led," said Sunny Ugoh, a spokesperson for the Economic Community of West African States – ECOWAS – the international group that includes Mali and its neighbors. "Until this happened."
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Ugoh was referring to a U.N. Security Council plan that called for the organization of an ECOWAS military force to retake northern Mali from Islamists. But the plan required training, financing and logistical support that wasn’t expected to be completed until the fall, and Mali simply couldn’t wait when the Islamists suddenly moved south in what officials feared was the beginning of a campaign to capture the one-third of Mali they didn’t already control.
"The international community had to respond the way they are responding," said Ugoh.
The Obama administration is sensitive to the suggestion that it is being dragged along in Mali, rather than pulling at the front, after a grueling presidential election campaign that saw President Barack Obama repeatedly accused of overseeing a decline in America’s power abroad. It’s gone out of its way to portray itself as engaged.
"We were in full consultation with the French on Mali for a number of weeks before they decided to deploy,” Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, told reporters Monday. “When they were invited to deploy and before they made those decisions, we were in consultation with them. So this has been very much an allied effort to support Mali, but the division of labor has been that the French would begin the military support while we focused on trying to get ECOWAS ready and going to come in behind them."
But the "leading from behind" approach, as some call Obama’s more cautious and diplomacy-centered foreign policy, doesn’t sit well with many in Africa.
"America should be in this war. This is not a Malian war, or an African war. This is a war against global terrorism. This is an international war," said Bakary Mariko, the spokesman for Capt. Amadou Sanogo, whose coup overturning Mali’s civilian government last year means that the United States is barred by law from assisting the Malian army directly.
Sanogo’s sudden reversal last week from his opposition to foreign intervention paved the way for France’s deployment. Africa could not solve this problem alone, said Mariko.
"African countries hesitated because they knew they could not beat them (the rebels)," he said of the ECOWAS plan, which the coup leaders had opposed.
That France was the nation that moved stop the Islamist advance in Mali also exposed the limits of the U.S. counterterrorism strategy in Africa, where al Qaida’s ideology is still making strong new inroads.
While the U.S. took a direct role in combating al Qaida’s central network in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it left it to African nations to counter the expansion of al Qaida franchises there.
In Somalia, the U.S. called on regional governments to lead the charge against al Shabab, now officially affiliated with al Qaida. Terror suspects were quietly extradited in cooperation with the regional governments, who received intelligence and security training and, when facing the enemy directly, equipment.
That was the approach the United States used toward al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, al Qaida’s North Africa branch. Uncertain that AQIM was a direct threat to American interests, the U.S. provided logistical support and training for West African militaries, including Mali’s, overseen by a new U.S. military command, Africom.
The fall of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya changed all that. Weapons from Gadhafi’s warehouses spilled across the region and into the hands of the highest bidder – often, al Qaida’s. Gadhafi’s fall also prompted hundreds of armed desert tribesmen known as Tuaregs to return to Mali, where they rebelled. Al Qaida and its allies then pushed those secular rebels aside, taking control of all of northern Mali.
Stunned and unprepared, the U.S. scrambled for a response. Immediately, African leaders began suggesting their own intervention force. The U.S. had immediate doubts about the plan, with Johnnie Carson, the top U.S. diplomat to Africa, telling Congress over the summer that the ECOWAS intervention was "not feasible."
Yet, the U.S. – after preaching a light military footprint in Africa for years – never came up with a credible Plan B. Carson’s own prescription to Congress for Mali’s northern ills called for regional containment and finding a new government in Mali’s south – initiatives that seemed to European allies, especially France, to lack urgency.
The U.S. began warming to the ECOWAS plan after a Mali link was alleged to the attacks on U.S. diplomatic compounds in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans. Army Gen. Carter Ham, the head of Africom, became deeply involved in planning the African mission. The U.N. Security Council authorized it.
Still, the plan had serious flaws. Troops would not be deployed until the fall of 2013 at the earliest. West African governments still had not communicated where the promised 3,300 troops would deploy from.
Nuland admitted on Monday that the lack of military pressure on AQIM is part of the reason the French now say they are facing stiffer resistance from the Islamist insurgents than they had expected.
"This is one of the hallmarks of AQIM is that they are generally quite well trained and quite effective, particularly if there’s no counter pressure on them, which there hadn’t been until the French launched their military action over the weekend," she said.
By then, al Qaida had controlled northern Mali for more than eight months.