Mali: The Wind, the Sand and the Stars

01/21/2013 08:25 am ET | Updated Mar 23, 2013

The most capable force among the insurgent coalition in Mali was trained by American Special Forces. That program began in 2008 under the auspices of the U.S. Army's African Command (United States Africa Command USAFRICOM or AFRICOM). Of the four elite units that acquired refined skills and sophisticated equipment, three defected to the rebels in April -- taking their special skills, arms and critical transport equipment with them. These American-trained units were supposed to be the key to repelling attacks from Islamist militants reinforced by veterans from the Libyan war. Instead, they nailed the lid on the defeated Malian army.

A complementary program provided the Malian army's senior officer corps with schooling in command, operations and organizational management. They were routed by the motley rebel forces early 2012 and then proceeded to usurp the civilian government In Bamako. The coup leader is Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, who attended a four-month infantry officer basic training course in Fort Benning,

The Malian mission was one element of a grand strategy for making the Western Sahara a terrorist-free, Salafist free zone that now is in tatters. General Carter F. Ham, the four star chief of Africa Command (headquartered in Stuttgart for some inexplicable reason), and some of his senior subordinates are quoted in last weekend's New York Times (January 12) as greatly surprised by that "unacceptable....disappointing" development. Evidently, they are shocked -- shocked that such a thing could have occurred. Unlike Captain Reynaud, they are not feigning ignorance. "The coup in Mali progressed very rapidly and with very little warning," said command spokesman Tom Davis. "The spark that ignited it occurred within their junior military ranks" where presumably we had little personal contact.

One recognizes tragic farce when one sees it; after all, we've been given an intensive twelve year course in tragic farce. Yet, the reaction at home has been nearly non-existent. Are we so inured to incompetence and its consequences that it makes not a ripple in policy circles and among our political class generally? Where else in the few score countries where we are doing 'Malis' are we preparing the ground for similar fiascos?

Mali is not an isolated happenstance. It has precedents. The Zetas, Mexico's most ruthlessly violent drug cartel, stems from a founding core of former commandos in the Mexican Army's elite forces (Grupo Areomovil de Fuerzas Especiales or GAFE) who received training at Fort Bragg in the mid-1990s. The deserted to become enforcers for the Gulf Cartel before setting up their own highly lucrative and blood thirsty operation in 2010.

It is of course unrealistic to posit these types of missions on complete assurance as to the actual capabilities and political orientation of the people you've trained and the units that you've formed. Here are perhaps two useful criteria to apply in deciding whether to go ahead anyway. One, is the American national interest stake great enough to warrant the costs and the risks of things going awry? I do not believe that the answer should have been 'yes' in Mali 5 years ago.

Checking as to what was the state of affairs five years ago, one learns that the formation we now call al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM ) consisted, by best estimates, of some hundreds of persons belonging to disparate groups: inter alia spin-offs from the Algerian insurrection of the 1990s who took refuge in the desert; thugs/kidnappers like Mokhtar Belmokhta ("Mr. Marlboro" his nom de commerce) who is more mafia capo than Islamic terrorist; and some stray Salafists . They were scattered across Algeria, Niger and Mali. This rag-tag "terror network" which we dubbed AQM was a threat mainly to naive French tourists taking the scenic route across the Sahara.

Only within the past 18 months have they acquired any serious fighting capability. Then, things happened: the violent break-up of Libya with the resulting dispersal of the African mercenaries from Gaddafi's army along with arms from his well-stocked depots. Among them were Malians drawn from both Tuareg tribes who harbored their own deep-seated grievances against the government in Bamako, and more hard-core Islamist elements. They then were joined by the American trained elite units who are an important stiffening element in the insurgents' ranks.

It is critical to bear in mind one feature of those units, and the overall mission to whip the Malian army into shape. The purpose from the outset was not to prepare them to deal with an external aggressor - none existed. Their concern was internal threats from militant jihadist groups of Islamists who might seek to topple the pro-Western regime in order to establish a sharia state. Such an eventuality was visualized as tantamount to posing a serious terrorist threat to American interests. So the political and religious sentiments of the elite units should have been the paramount concern from the outset. They were not.

A sober monitoring of this key dimension was imperative as the mission proceeded. That wasn't done. Evidently the Africa Command leadership who worked with the Malians for 50 months had no idea as to their politico/sectarian disposition. Hence, the complete surprise of General Ham et al in Germany. In fairness to the Special Forces officers who did the actual training, one suspects that none spent 50 months with the Malians -- or anything like it. Their tours probably lasted a year or less. In addition, the training likely was segmented and specialized: i.e. different USA officers trained them in different skills. Finally, they may have moved from unit to unit -- thereby never establishing strong bonds. Those overseeing the program in Stuttgart failed to take account of this -- thereby disregarding the nature of the mission they led and their Command's underlying rationale.

If the above is more or less accurate, it's no great surprise that we were surprised. Had T.E. Lawrence and his colleagues operated this way, there would have been a good chance that Faisal and the brilliant tactical commander of the Arab camel cavalry Atta had wound up defending the Ottoman Caliphate and attacking the British army of kafirs and Crusaders instead of allying with it.

In a world of reasonable accountability, Admiral William H. McRaven the aggressive head of all US Special Forces (United States Special Operations Command USSOCOM), and General Ham who took charge of Africa Command in March 2011 after his predecessor, General William E. 'Kip' Ward, was removed on charges of misappropriating public monies, could be sacked. All other officers in charge of such programs would be given tutorials in what they are meant to accomplish.

In perspective, it is becoming increasingly clear that the United States has allowed its infatuation with unconventional warfare conducted by Special Forces, and unconventional technology as exemplified by drones, to drive assessment of what we need to do and what we should do in an all-embracing 'war-on-terror" that no one can any longer define. In Mali we have a classic case of iatrogenic treatment -- as they say in medical circles. The misguided prescription for a minor illness produced a more severe illness. Why go back to a physician who does this repeatedly (see, too, Iraq, Somalia and Yemen)?

Our compulsion is fired, and the resulting actions -- however calamitous -- are justified by the evocation of terror. Any violence by Muslim militants anywhere sets these passions in motion, passions that then freight them with the full force of 9/11 and its sequels. "This is terror," pronounces Hillary Clinton after the Algerian commando assault at Ain Amenis results in civilian deaths. "Terror" -- the one word is enough, there and then, to put thought on sabbatical. Spice it with the word "evil" and the mind seizes up entirely.

Leon Panetta vows that we shall not rest until we have tracked down the killers of the dead American, Frederick Buttaccio -- who actually died of a heart attack during the raid. Moreover, "They are a threat to our country. They're a threat to the world."

What is most important is not what happens in the remote stretches of the Sahara where the so-called AQIM will be bloodied and dispersed by the French while remaining a nuisance to the weak states of the Sahel. Some of the wayward American-trained soldiers will gradually brought back into the government fold and the Tuareg could gain a measure of deserved autonomy. Rash tourists will remain at risk as kidnapping and smuggling regain their place as mainstays of the Saharan economy. It is what lessons we learn that counts. We have McRaven and others on record as defining Special Forces missions in Africa -- and elsewhere -- as encompassing much that normally was associated with the CIA and State. Do we wish them better luck in future or reel them in?

Admiral McRaven has promulgated a detailed, audacious plan to give the central role for advancing American interests (very broadly defined) to Special Operations Command. As outlined in the New York Times last February (Feb. 13), he is putting the finishing touches on a comprehensive strategy for using his 60,000 personnel as a multi-purpose, semi-autonomous force operating on every continent except Antarctica. It will be designated the military's tool of choice - and not only to fight insurgencies, but also Latin American drug cartels in Honduras, Mexico, Columbia, etc. and bandit gangs in eastern Congo. SOC will be mandated to do active intelligence gathering, to engage in political penetration of other countries and governments, to undertake training and liaison with foreign militaries, and to address underlying conditions that spark insurgencies.

McRaven modestly admits that "we're not yet ready... to run the global war on terror." We must wait awhile for that happy day to arrive. Where are the State Department and other Executive Branch agencies in all this? The White House? Eclipsed. The State Department was not even briefed on the plan that bears the formidable name of Global SOF Alliance.

In a companion innovation, the Pentagon will send hundreds of additional spies overseas as part of an ambitious plan to assemble an espionage network that rivals the CIA. As Greg Miller has reported, ".... Among the Pentagon's top intelligence priorities... are Islamist militant groups in Africa." (Washington Post, Dec. 1 2012)