01/18/2013 01:07 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How Not to Stage Manage the World

The new war in Mali and the subsequent hostage crisis in Algeria give us tellingly pointed reminders of the stark limits not only to our power, but to our knowledge.

With regard to the hostage crisis in Algeria, we've been remarkably uninformed. With regard to the war in Mali, it turns out that soldiers trained by our special forces to help stabilize the country have done much to create the crisis we were trying to avoid.

More than 24 hours after Algerian forces raided the BP natural gas facility seized by jihadists in the Sahara Desert, we still have no comprehensive report on what happened or, crucially, the fate of dozens of Western hostages, including seven or more reported Americans. U.S. officials have struggled to gain basic information about events on the ground, including how many American hostages were in play.

It looked to me late yesterday like it would fall to British Prime Minister David Cameron to lay it all out in a planned appearance this morning before the House of Commons in London. Cameron cancelled a long-planned address on the future of the European Union scheduled for Friday to deal with this crisis.

Algerian military forces moved in Thursday on a BP natural gas facility seized by jihadists as they took dozens of Westerners as hostages in retaliation for the French military intervention in Mali. The situation remains chaotic and in many respects unknown today.

However, Cameron left as many questions dangling as answers provided.

He complained yesterday that Algeria -- which has fought a ruthless and effective war against Islamists and may want to send a message about messing with its energy industry -- moved on the facility without consulting or notifying the UK, which has a great deal of experience in special operations.

Other Western countries, including the U.S., also were not consulted. Japanese officials protested publicly and vehemently, insisting that the operation be suspended as it was underway.

U.S. media outlets, like the Obama administration, are lagging in providing information on all this. Perhaps that is because jihadists are demanding that the U.S. release two convicted terrorists in American prisons in exchange for remaining American hostages. And perhaps this is a dramatic example of our profound lack of knowledge.

Meanwhile, France continues ramping up its forces in Mali, their intervention there the express reason, according to the hostage-takers, for the hostage crisis in Algeria. Promised West African troops are just now beginning to move, but it will be several days at least before any can be pressed into service next to the French and Malian government troops fighting jihadists in the desert.

New French Socialist President Francois Hollande is rushing ground troops into the landlocked and impoverished African nation, with nearly 3,000 French troops slated to be on the ground.

France scrambled a week ago to mount a military response when the tattered government in Bamako reported that it was unable to stave off a suddenly mounted military offensive by fundamentalist Islamists, many of them reportedly closely aligned with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, thus raising the specter of Mali becoming the failed state base for transnational jihadist activities.

West African leaders gathered earlier this week in Mali's capital of Bamako to work out the intervention of their troops, but the help won't be immediate. And it may not be very heavy, with only 3,300 troops envisioned so far.

Right now, the battle for the town of Diabaly, subject of hours of French air strikes, and on the way to the capital city Bamako, is underway. French and Malian forces report capturing the key town of Konna, the fall of which on January 10th triggered France's sudden intervention on January 11th.

The U.S. is weighing options in the new war in Mali, options which do not include ground forces in combat.

As we weigh our options, we would do well to consider that we have already screwed up there.

For it turns out that we already have a checkered past in Mali, the former French colony which few Americans have heard of and where we have remarkably little history. The counter-insurgency doctrine which has been much in vogue for most of the past decade was in use in Mali for the past several years, with U.S. Special Forces trainers trying to spin up the Malian military.

As Mali underwent a complex series of insurrections last year, involving a few factions, including mostly secular Tuareg ethnic militants and vehemently Islamist insurgents now busily instituting harsh sharia law in their occupied territories, several U.S.-trained units defected from the government ranks, joining the insurrectionists.

Then a U.S.-trained Malian Army captain, at the crucial moment, led a military coup that crippled the democratically-elected government's ability to respond to Islamist moves.

Why did he act then? I don't know.

Nor have I seen a good explanation beyond simple opportunism. Somehow I have a feeling that the answer may not be so simple.

The U.S. has agreed to a French request for airlift capacity to help France move its troops and equipment to Mali. The first West African troops have arrived in the country. They are there under a United Nations Security Council resolution to help the fight against Islamic fundamentalists surging out of the country's north, which they seized last year.

Stage managing events in a country we barely understand turns out to be a tricky business.

I've never been to Mali and know little about it. I have been to neighboring Algeria, but only on its Mediterranean coast. I suspect that is far closer than most of those who are making judgments on Mali today.

The wary reader will note the irony of the title of this article. Is there a good way to stage manage the world?

Reflexive interventionists, relying on ideology to power through ignorance and complexity, will say yes. But the truth is that there isn't, not without far better knowledge, which takes time and study, and far more power, which in any event can backfire dramatically even if it were to exist.

Reflexive anti-interventionists, also relying on ideology as their crutch in a multi-dimensional world, will say that not only is the answer no, we in fact shouldn't be involved anywhere, that there is no good struggle with jihadists for we created the crises to begin with. If only that were true, the world would be such a known place. Just as known as their mirror opposite ideologues imagine that their own tunnel-visioned belief system makes it.

The reality is that we are barely beginning to grapple with what we don't know with regard to these crises.

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