Jeffrey Simpson: Entering Mali is easy, exiting, not so much

The Globe and Mail

French foreign legionnaires check their equipment in Niono, some 400 kilometers (249 miles) north of the capital Bamako Sunday Jan. 20, 2013. The Malian military announced late Saturday that the government was now controlling Diabaly, marking an important accomplishment for the French-led offensive to oust the extremists from northern and central Mali. (Jerome Delay/AP)

The timing could not be worse; the country could hardly be less known; the internal complexities more intractable; the terrain more vast and forbidding; in short, intervention by Western countries in Mali would be fraught with problems.

Hand the average Canadian (or American) a map of the world and say, “point to Mali.” The results would quite likely not be pretty. Far away geographically, Mali is just as far away intellectually from people in this part of the world. What national interest, Canadians might inquire, must be defended in that place?

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It would be nice to say: Let Africans solve African problems. But, of course, the military forces being slowly and unsteadily assembled among various African states to fight the jihadis in Mali (and perhaps elsewhere) are completely unequal to the task. They lack security intelligence, air capacity, transport, military skills and perhaps even the political will required to take on jihadis.

The jihadi groups in Mali are part of a wider network that stretches across a band of instability almost from the Atlantic to the Red Sea across north-central Africa. If their ambit expands farther – it has already spread into northern Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country – the world will have to contend with yet another nexus of unstable states and spawning grounds for terror.

Western countries are damned if they do, and possibly damned if they don’t intervene. France, the former colonial power in Mali, has taken the lead militarily and has looked around for tangible help, only to find very little on offer.

Canada has sent one plane – for a week! – reflecting Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s judgment that the Canadian public is hostile to any military intervention. He quite likely, and reasonably, must wonder: If Canada gets in for a penny, can it get out for one, or will inexorably the country be in for a pound? Never enter a military conflict without clear goals, sufficient resources and an eventual exit strategy – none of which are yet clearly apparent in Mali.

Mali and Afghanistan are different in many ways, but in the minds of the electorate they are as one: distant sinkholes for money and personnel, easier to enter than to exit. The prospect of intervening in Mali when Afghanistan fatigue has descended on Western countries makes a Mali campaign extremely unlikely.

In Afghanistan, Western governments (including Canada’s) sold intervention on the gossamer wings of making the country democratic, helping girls become educated, raising the standard of living – all of which proved elusive and ultimately disappointing. In Mali, where the democratic government was overthrown and a secessionist group took power in the north, any intervention can have only one objective: killing as many jihadis as possible and uprooting them from their redoubts.

Except that the jihadis know the terrain. They are well financed, having extorted money from kidnapping. They are utterly fanatical (as former Canadian diplomats and hostages Robert Fowler and Louis Guay discovered during their captivity). They therefore cannot be dislodged from the vast terrain over which they hold sway unless their adversaries put very sizable, sustained military forces on the ground – and then somehow co-ordinate a multinational effort that would have to last for a very long time.

Air power alone cannot win this kind of military confrontation. Air power can interdict, slow down and damage an adversary’s capacities; only ground forces can occupy territory. And in Canada, as in other Western countries, there is no appetite whatsoever for sending ground forces to Mali.

You can understand the frustration, even bewilderment, of France. A United Nations Security Council resolution (that the French drafted) authorizes force in Mali and encourages countries to participate. France is responding, with the support of African countries, although not necessarily Arab countries such as Algeria and Tunisia.

France thus far has not received much tangible help from traditional allies such as Britain and Canada. And Germany, as usual, wants as little a part as possible in any serious military intervention. Europe, in other words, is an economic union, with no common foreign policy.

Canada has offered one transport plane. It will, quite likely, very cautiously offer a little more.