|Timbuktu. Photograph by Naftali Hilger, laif/Redux, from National Geographic.|
Like everybody else, I've read my share of explanations over the past dozen years of why our Overseas Contingency Operations are taking place, but I don't think I ever learned as much as I did from a few paragraphs in this morning's Times about an ostensibly quite different adventure, the ongoing French invasion of Mali:
For years, the United States tried to stem the spread of Islamic militancy in the region by conducting its most ambitious counterterrorism program ever across these vast, turbulent stretches of the Sahara,
1. The purpose of the OsCOps (as I propose they should be called; previously I tried OsCO) is to prevent terrorist attacks "as far away" (from, for example, Mali) "as Europe"—or North America (from, for example, Yemen). This does not include the crazed original invasion of Iraq, or if it did they were even crazier than we thought, but it evidently includes Iraq now, with whatver ongoing OsCOps are still being staged there, after Proconsul Bremer and General Franks had finished constructing a local Al Qa'eda within the country. President Obama may be regarded as telling the truth about this (or may not, I just want to note the possibility).But as insurgents swept through the desert last year, commanders of this nation’s elite army units, the fruit of years of careful American training, defected when they were needed most — taking troops, guns, trucks and their newfound skills to the enemy in the heat of battle, according to senior Malian military officials.
“It was a disaster,” said one of several senior Malian officers to confirm the defections.
Then an American-trained officer overthrew Mali’s elected government, setting the stage for more than half of the country to fall into the hands of Islamic extremists. American spy planes and surveillance drones have tried to make sense of the mess, but American officials and their allies are still scrambling even to get a detailed picture of who they are up against.
Now, in the face of longstanding American warnings that a Western assault on the Islamist stronghold could rally jihadists around the world and prompt terrorist attacks as far away as Europe, the French have entered the war themselves.
2. They are not a War (GWOT) because they are not a war, but rather counterterrorism, which seems to be a particular kind of counterinsurgency in which the insurgents are terrorists, or Terrorists. The Terrorists are, if they exist, Jihadists, that is a branch of Sunni Islam which is more or less Salafist in theology and terroristic in politics; we know they have existed in the past because we helped create them, in Afghanistan during the counter-counterinsurgency of the 1980s, but we don't know if those currently active are true Terrorists or merely terrorists. Keep in mind that some of this is really true: there have been real suicide attackers and real attacks, notably right here in New York City.
3. But OsCOps don't actually work very well, even if they did in Malaya and British East Africa 60 years ago (it certainly wasn't so great in Algeria, or Vietnam). Troops you train may be secret enemies, and the weapons you give them can be turned against you. Villagers can turn a blind eye when the bad guys murder hundreds of people at a shot, but if you mistakenly drop a bomb on a single funeral party they'll never forgive you. Why? Because they can visualize the funeral party. Because you obviously don't belong, and they're only hired friends; didn't your mother teach you that you can't buy friendship? Because killing somebody with a bomb launched from a computer console 10,000 miles away is cowardly (according to their exotic native culture). They don't respect you.
4. President Obama and his Gray Eminence Cardinal Brennan do not find this easy to understand. Although Aristotle and St. Thomas never laid out the rules for a Just Counterinsurgency, it seems obvious to them that it is juster than a just war. Far fewer people get hurt, and they get something back, like roads, and girls' schools, and village councils. Democracy! Actually Obama understands it better than any US president since Eisenhower, but he can only understand it one country at a time, so as we start packing up in Afghanistan—Yay!—things in Somalia and Yemen start getting worse. And Mali? Who knew!? But Obama didn't start it:
American officials defended their training, saying it was never intended to be nearly as comprehensive as what the United States has done in Iraq and Afghanistan. “We trained five units over five years but is that going to make a fully fledged, rock-solid military?” asked an American military official familiar with the region.(They don't say it straight out, but luckily we're good at arithmetic, like 2013 minus 5.)
I'm sorry, emoprogs, but Obama is probably the very best we can do.