The United States is meddling in another internal civil war to prevent a “terrorist haven” from developing. This time it’s not in Somalia or Yemen but instead in the West African country of Mali. The United States and France are concerned that Islamists have taken over northern Mali, and the two countries are heavily leaning on Abdelaziz Bouteflika, president of the neighboring regional power Algeria, to support an international invasion of Mali. The American and French implication is that, if left unmolested, the Islamists in control of this territory will create a base for international Islamist terrorist operations. They back an invasion because they believe the government of Mali is incapable of retaking its own territory.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently met with and tried to browbeat a reluctant President Bouteflika, who believes such an invasion would create more problems than it would solve. The U.S. superpower, with many carrots and sticks, can probably eventually “persuade” Bouteflika to get on board. Such a proxy invasion of Mali would fit with a recent pattern used by the United States—a nation with a domestic population, after direct interventions of Afghanistan and Iraq, which is fatigued with war. Instead, in Libya, Yemen, and Somalia, the United States has supported proxy armies. In Libya and Yemen, the U.S. has supported indigenous forces from the air. In Somalia, it has supported a nominal government from the air and also recruited Ethiopia and Kenya to invade and fight the al-Shabab Islamist fighters. In Mali, any invasion would probably mirror that in Somalia by the recruitment of regional powers to do the dirty work.
As it did in Afghanistan and Iraq, however, the U.S. often bulls ahead without listening to those who know best—people who actually live in the particular region involved. Bouteflika’s reluctance should be a big red flag to U.S. pressure for proxy military action. Bouteflika’s country has experienced Islamist militancy firsthand, and the capture by Islamists of neighboring northern Mali should worry Algeria far more than it does the faraway United States.
But as during the Cold War, the U.S. superpower regularly worries more about regional threats to friendly countries than the countries do themselves. And as during the Cold War, the distant superpower fails to distinguish among potential adversaries. For much of the Cold War—until Richard Nixon recognized that the Chinese and Soviet Communists hated each other and that such divisions could be exploited—all Communists were regarded as alike. Nowadays, the United States makes a similar error by regarding all Islamist radicals as fellow travelers with al-Qaeda. Yet most of the groups in Yemen, Somalia, and Mali are Islamists with mainly local concerns. Meddling in their business only creates more enemies of the U.S. Instead of dividing (and even cultivating) potential opponents, as Nixon did to U.S. advantage, indiscriminate American hostility usually drives locally oriented Islamists to support al-Qaeda.
Making further unnecessary enemies undoubtedly has entered Bouteflika’s mind and helps explain his reluctance to endorse an invasion of Mali. After all, Bouteflika has to live in the same neighborhood with these people. Instead of being the usual “bull in a china shop,” the U.S. should learn from Bouteflika’s lack of enthusiasm. Why create more anti-U.S. terrorists in a part of the world that is hardly strategic to U.S. vital interests? France, with Mali being somewhat close to the Mediterranean, may have some interest in what happens there, but the distant U.S. should have much less.
If, in the worst case, somehow local Islamists in Mali allow anti-U.S. terror groups to train in any of their camps established there—at much risk to their own cause—the United States could easily take out such facilities with drone attacks or airstrikes in the open desert environment. But at a time of war weariness and budget and economic crises at home, the U.S. cannot afford to keep making new and unnecessary enemies by promoting an invasion of Mali.