Is the United States preparing to let the French hang out to dry in their dramatic military intervention in Mali? In the cynical game of big power rivalry, a setback for the old colonial patron in West Africa would bring handsome gains for the US in extending its growing sphere of influence in this strategic and vital resource-rich region.
So far, Washington has offered words of support and vague pledges of helping with «logistics and surveillance» as French forces find their plans tough going to rout an array of rebels and Islamists in the West African country.
But surprisingly, the US is keeping its military powder dry – more one week into the French campaign, dubbed Operation Serval. The outgoing Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has pointedly refused to confirm whether American troops would be deployed in Mali, and Washington spokesmen say they are merely «weighing their options».
The Los Angeles Times reported on Friday that there is a «split between the White House and Pentagon» over the perceived «danger of Islamist militants in West Africa», with many in the Obama administration reckoning that they do not «present enough of a risk to US allies or interests to warrant a military response».
The uncharacteristic American coyness over a military response must be giving French President Francois Hollande cause for concern that his country may be left carrying the can in the Malian conflict – a conflict which is threatening to escalate across the vast Sahel-Saharan region, as the attack on Algeria’s gas installation and deadly hostage siege this week points up. Islamist militia spokesmen have warned that France «has opened the gates of hell» and that more such attacks on Western civilians are on the way. With some 30,000 French civilian expatriates living in its former West and North African colonies and being home to the largest Muslim population in Europe, France is most at risk from such reprisals.
French media reports allude to the worry among its politicians that France could end up playing a deadly game of solitaire in the desert, without crucial material support from its Western allies and Washington in particular. ‘France seeks allies in Mali’ and ‘France feels alone on the battlefield’ read two telling headlines on its national broadcaster France 24, after the weekend aerial bombing raids failed to quell the Malian enemy, forcing the French to dramatically scale up its troop deployment on the ground. The arrival of 40 Togolese troops from Mali’s southern neighbour as part of an advance by some 3,500 soldiers from the West African ECOWAS bloc will hardly ease French misgivings.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who last weekend was making rather gung-ho statements about «defeating terrorists», seems to be now casting around for other European Union nations to give his country a dig-out in Mali.
Disturbingly for the French, Washington seems to have discovered legalistic qualms about military intervention in Mali. Asked about possible American deployment to aid the French and Malian army, Washington spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said: "We are precluded under the counter-coup restrictions from funding a military that has been involved in a coup until democracy has been restored.» This was a reference to the coup that the Malian military had carried out last March, which boomeranged by reigniting a long-smoldering separatist revolt in the country’s northern territory by Tuareg rebels along with two other Islamist groups. The last two, Ansar Dine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, are believed to be linked to Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) – the group which is said to be involved in the attack on the gas plant in eastern Algeria.
But this apparent American rectitude for legal probity does not seem convincing, given Washington’s replete record of reckless military interventions and support for despotic juntas over many decades in many countries, including on the African continent.
Another seeming about-turn in official US thinking was conveyed in a report in the New York Times this week with the headline: ‘US sees hazy threat from Mali militants’. The paper stated: «Officials in Washington still only have an impressionistic understanding of the militant groups that have established a safe haven in Mali, and they are divided about whether some of these groups pose a threat to the United States.» The Times even quoted the head of US AFRICOM, General Carter Ham, who was speaking after the French intervention. Asked if the Islamist groups in Mali presented an imminent danger to the US, the General curtly replied: «Probably not».
Hold on a minute. Only last month, Carter Ham was telling the Times that Mali had become the new global base for Al Qaeda and other Islamist terror groups. In that report, headlined ‘American Commander Details Al Qaeda’s Strength in Mali’, Carter Ham gave this alarming assessment: «Al Qaeda’s affiliate in North Africa is operating terrorist training camps in northern Mali and providing arms, explosives and financing to a militant Islamist organization in northern Nigeria… The affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, has used the momentum gained since seizing control of the northern part of the impoverished country in March to increase recruiting across sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and Europe.» The Times described General Ham’s assessment as «the most detailed and sobering American military analysis so far of the consequences of the Qaeda affiliate and associated extremist groups seizing the northern part of Mali.» Ham concluded by saying: «There is a compelling need for the international community, led by Africans, to address that».
Bear in mind, too, that the Pentagon has spent some $600 million over the past 10 years developing close links with the national militaries in West and North Africa, including Mali, Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Algeria. One of the biggest CIA bases in Africa is believed to be located in Algeria on Mali’s northern border, which flies surveillance drones over the region. Since 2002, the US has been running counterinsurgency programs in Mali and has close ties with that country’s army. The coup leader last March, Captain Amadou Sanogo, has undergone extensive military training between 2004 and 2010 at the US Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia, and other US facilities in Arizona, Georgia and Texas.
Are we to believe that with this level of US military presence and intelligence in the Sahel and Sahara that Washington officials are now only seeing a «hazy threat» in Mali and latterly playing down the risk as «not imminent»?
Admittedly, following this week’s disastrous hostage rescue in Algeria where several American workers are feared dead, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Panetta both beefed up their language. Speaking while in Britain on Friday, Panetta said Washington would respond aggressively. «Terrorists should be on notice that they will find no sanctuary, no refuge, not in Algeria, not in North Africa, not anywhere,» he said. «Those who would wantonly attack our country and our people will have no place to hide.»
However, apart from the latest unspecified offer of lending C-17 troop-carrying cargo planes to France, the US military response to events in Mali appears conspicuously hesitant.
The LA Times reports: «The Pentagon is planning to begin ferrying additional French troops and equipment to Mali in coming days aboard US Air Force C-17 cargo jets, according to Air Force Major Robert Firman, a Pentagon spokesman… But the administration has so far balked at a French request for tanker aircraft to provide in-air refueling of French fighter jets because the White House does not yet want to get directly involved in supporting French combat operations, officials said.»
So, what is going on here? Well, in the no-love-lost world of imperialist rivalry, perhaps Washington is seeing an opportunity to extend its already growing sphere of influence in a resource-rich African region. The old colonial master France appears to have acted impetuously by ploughing into Mali with guns blazing. The rash act by Paris last week seemed to have genuinely caught Washington by surprise. But maybe the Americans are thinking that is no bad thing now. If this campaign ends ruefully for France – and the way things are turning pear-shaped, the outlook does not bode well – then the United States will be in a position to step in to assert its influence in a region noted for abundant reserves of oil, gas, metals and ores. From a cynical point of view, the US may well let France get bogged down in the desert and take a fatal hit to its historic role in Africa. French pain is US gain…