The Libyan boomerang in Mali

The history of the last thirty years of American policy in the Middle East and North Africa can be summed up in two words: unintended consequences.  The US has found itself pressured by outside events into interventions that have ended up backfiring in substantial ways.

In most cases, one can argue with good reason that the US advanced other policies that more than compensated for the complications.  In Afghanistan, we armed the rebels in order to help bring down the Soviet Union.  We initially invaded Iraq to repel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait and to protect Saudi Arabian oil fields, which led to the necessity of doing it all over again twelve years later when Hussein refused to abide by the terms of the cease-fire.  We invaded Afghanistan ourselves to deprive al-Qaeda of a safe haven and to find and punish the people responsible for 9/11 and the attacks on the USS Cole, Khobar Towers, and two embassies in Africa during the 1990s.  All of those decisions produced serious negative consequences for the US, but we could argue that we at least gainedsomething through them.

The blowback from our decision to intervene in Libya and in Mali (and not just recently either) don’t have any silver linings apparent at the moment, though.  The Financial Times calls this one of our “most embarrassing boomerangs,” and it’s almost impossible to refute that conclusion:

Events this week in Algeria, where Islamic militants took dozens of western hostages at a gas plant, and last week in Mali where France was forced to step in to prevent an Islamist takeover of the capital, Bamako, have underlined how right Washington was to be concerned and just how ineffectual subsequent strategies to contain the problem were.

To the dismay of the US, junior Malian officers trained as part of $620m pan-Sahelian counter-terrorism initiative launched in 2002 to help four semi-desert states resist Islamic militancy took part in a coup in March last year. Others among them defected to the Tuareg revolt that eventually led to a coalition of Islamist militias, allied with Algerian militants from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, capturing the northern two-thirds of Mali.

Potentially, these US-trained officers are now using US counter-insurgency knowhow against France’s intervention force.

One can still argue that the attempt to bolster anti-Islamist governments in the region was a calculated risk, and that the failure of the earlier initiatives didn’t make matters much worse.  After all, the reason why we started sinking money into Mali was to prevent what was seen as a reasonably likely Islamist overthrow, or perhaps worse, the kind of destabilization by Islamist forces that turned Somalia into a failed state for a generation.  We didn’t put combat troops on the ground, so at worst we spent $620 million in postponing the near-inevitable.

However, that’s not the limit of American intervention.  Our actions in the Arab Spring by dumping our ally in Egypt and in launching a war against Libya radically changed the calculus in the Sahel.  Ten months ago, the consequences of decapitating the Qaddafi regime for Mali and the rest of the Sahel was obvious, as Daniel Larison warned:

But the Libyan war’s worst impact may have occurred outside of Libya. The neighboring country of Mali, which also happens to support U.S. counter-terrorist efforts in western Africa, has been roiled by a new Tuareg insurgency fueled by the influx of men and weapons after Gadhafi’s defeat, providing the Tuareg rebels with much more sophisticated weaponry than they had before. This new upheaval benefits al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), and the Tuareg uprising threatens the territorial integrity of Mali. The rebellion has also displaced nearly 200,000 civilians in a region that is already at risk of famine, and refugees from Mali are beginning to strain local resources in Niger, where most of them have fled. “Success” in Libya is creating a political and humanitarian disaster in Mali and Niger.

The actual boomerang didn’t come from the military training the US provided in the Sahel, which was always going to be a calculated risk against a variety of poor outcomes.  The boomerang in this case came from our extremely ill-advised and reckless intervention in Libya, which turned that nation into a failed state and sent tentacles of radicalism throughout the Sahel.  And what did we gain from the Libyan adventure and the revolution we blessed in Egypt by tossing a 30-year ally to the wolves?  In the latter, we now have leadership that feels entirely comfortable using eliminationist rhetoric against Israel; in the former, we have a burned-out consulate, four dead Americans, and a central government whose writ won’t run in half the country.  Our policies in the last two years in this region have emboldened our enemies and disillusioned our allies, and in this case we didn’t get anything at all in trade for the unintended consequences we have reaped.