Some hard lessons that may help in Mali

Some hard lessons that may help in Mali

By Gary Anderson

Best Defense office of hard lessons

Over the course of the past 20 years, I have observed or participated in counterinsurgency campaigns in South Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan in both military and civilian capacities. Some were done poorly, some successfully. The one thing that I have learned is that each is unique in its own way and there are no templates that will work in all cases. Mali is a good example of uniqueness, and there are some lessons from each of my experiences that pertain to that particular situation.

As a U.N. observer in Lebanon, I watched the Israelis go from liberators to hated occupiers in a way that was completely unnecessary, and caused them needless grief. Like the French in Mali, the Israelis chased off an unwanted foreign presence — in their case, the Palestinians were viewed occupiers by the largely Shiite southern Lebanese population. Unfortunately, the Israelis had a tendency to view any armed Muslim Arab as a threat. Consequently, Israel opted to arm a minority Christian-led militia. This action inadvertently created Hezbollah, which became a far greater threat to Israel than the Palestinians ever could present. The Israelis would have likely been far better off arming individual villages for self-protection without taking sides in the ongoing Lebanese civil war and positioning themselves as an honest third-party broker in the inevitable civil disputes in South Lebanon.

Mali is a civil war as much as an insurgency. The southern third, and the government, are dominated by blacks while the northern part has a considerable population of light-skinned Tauregs of Berber origin. Although heavily armed al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) foreign fighters have provided the Taureg separatists their military advantage, in the recent past the Tauregs have shown an inclination to negotiate, and will likely do so again if the jihadists can be ejected. This is where the French need to avoid Israel’s Lebanon mistake and become facilitators of real negotiations.

In Somalia, we learned the lessons of cultural ignorance the hard way. After a largely successful humanitarian intervention to stop mass starvation, we and the United Nations ignored the traditional clan system of the Somalis and made the mistake of trying to supplant it with alien Western style democracy. Ironically, the attempt by the former Somali dictator to ignore the influence of the clans was what began the disastrous civil war that caused the collapse of Somalia to begin with. The Americans and United Nations overreached in Somalia. The Malian government understands that it needs to rebuild the democratic institutions that were toppled by the disastrous military coup that initiated the current crisis. We could help in reestablishing Malian governmental legitimacy.

In Iraq, we succeeded largely because we were able to separate the foreign jihadist insurgents from the indigenous Sunni nationalist insurgents through a soft power combination of diplomacy and money. The use of soft power such as this in driving a wedge between the Tuareg people and AQIM will be critical to any potential success.

In Afghanistan, we continue to learn perhaps the most difficult lesson of all. To successfully help a host-nation government fight an insurgency requires that the host-nation government wants to address the root causes of the insurgency. The Afghan government never accepted that principle, and may never will. That does not mean that governance cannot be improved in Mali. Good governance is not necessarily expensive. I have come to the conclusion through bitter experience that the more development money we throw at a country, the worse the government gets, as money breeds corruption. In Mali, we would be better advised to spend small amounts of money on rule of law training and local management techniques for local officials, particularly Tauregs and other local officials in the north. Insurgencies are like politics in that they are basically local.

In rebuilding the Malian military, we need to remember that the organizer of the coup debacle was American trained. As Western trainers try to retool the Malian Army, we need to remember human rights training and the importance of civilian control over the military as much as small unit training, patrolling, and other tactical skills. In addition, the Department of State and French Foreign Ministry need to stress civil-military relations in training national level Malian officials.

I am one of those opposed to U.S. intervention in Syria. The infestation of Islamic radicals in the ranks of the rebels is even greater than it was in Afghanistan during the revolt against the Soviets. I favor a negotiated settlement with the Baathists that will allow them a reasonably soft landing as we brokered between the government junta and the rebels in El Salvador two decades ago, but Mali is different.

If we use Special Operations Force troops to train local militias and retool the Malian Army into a professional force capable of supporting a democratic civilian government, we can do so cheaply and effectively; that is the SOF mission. More importantly, they could help build village-level self-defense militias in the north to prevent the now hated Islamists from returning. Again, a relatively inexpensive operation.

Likewise, the State Department and USAID now have hard-earned Iraq and Afghanistan experience in coaching good governance and anti-corruption at the national, provincial, and local levels. This ought to be exploited before it atrophies. Again, this can be done affordably. Mali is not hopeless, and it can be a model for the right way to stabilize governments and fight Islamic extremists.

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps colonel who was a governance advisor in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is an adjunct professor at the George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs.