After France attacks radicals in Mali, what’s next for the United States?

Malian and Senegalese soldiers undergo training with U.S. special forces in Mali in 2010. Photo by: U.S. Army Africa / CC BY

EDITOR’S NOTE: The United States needs to “aggressively rethink” its security and democracy assistance to Mali, argues Todd Moss, vice president for programs and senior fellow at the Center for Global Development. The process, he adds, should begin with an honest assessment of what has gone wrong in a country that was once seen a model of democracy and stability in Africa. A few excerpts:

The unexpectedly sudden French military action in Mali is a first step toward reunifying the country, but it also highlights the risks for outsiders, including the United States. In the days ahead, the U.S. will need to balance its cautious instincts on Mali with the imperative to help shape events as they unfold. In the months ahead, the US must reflect on the future of American counterterrorism and democracy strategies in places without a massive US military presence.

Until last week, all signs were pointing to a lumbering international invasion in summer or fall 2013 to displace Islamist extremists from northern Mali. (Recall, this all started with the March 22 coup, an overnight collapse of the Malian military after a new Tuareg rebellion, and the commandeering of that revolt by Al-Qaeda-aligned radicals.) But everything escalated last week after Jihadists went on the offensive in central Mali and France responded on January 10, first with air attacks and then with ground troops.

Coverage and analysis of the conflict in Mali has been, in my view, pretty good given the circumstances.  (Twitter is the best way to go. In the traditional press, I particularly recommend following David Lewis and Bate Felix of Reuters and freelancer Peter Tinti who often writes for Christian Science Monitor).  My initial takeaways of the events of the past few days: …

US caution good, US passivity bad

For the United States, the challenge is to find a constructive role and exert influence without getting dragged into a quagmire—or being left behind to merely react to events. Susan Rice famously called French plans for Mali ‘crap’, but those concerns are now OBE. Instead, the US will now have to support France with logistics and intelligence. (This is the easy part, but still could conceivably go wrong.). Washington will also need to resist any temptation to overreact to Islamists in the region or allow any ill-conceived US action to make things worse. (This should be manageable, but will become harder once U.S. forces draw down from Afghanistan and Africom looks for new things to do.) Over the long-term, The Pentagon and the State Department should aggressively rethink the future of American security cooperation and democracy support, starting with a frank assessment of what’s gone wrong in Mali, where we’ve had intense military support for at least eight years in a country that was considered a democratic paragon. (This last mandate is very difficult, but necessary if we hope to avoid repeating the same mistakes all over again).

What’s the post-kinetic political exit plan for Mali?

Even if the military campaign goes well and the major towns are recaptured, the medium-term outlook is very worrying. Let’s assume that French strikes are successful, collateral damage is limited, and ECOWAS deploys in a peacekeeping role. Then what? As I’ve argued before, the road to a stable northern Mali starts in the capital Bamako. Containing extremists in Mali requires cooperation of Tuareg militants, which requires a durable political solution to Tuareg grievances, which in turn requires a legitimate government in Bamako to make and implement a deal.  But Bamako is a mess. The junta, led by putschist Captain Sonogo, is still in charge, and I see no signs yet that a credible political transition is underway. France now has a tremendous moment of leverage. Will they use it? Will the United States?

Republished with permission from the Center for Global Development. View original article.

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