In light of France’s recent involvement in Mali, questions about the trajectory and length of this war are naturally coming to the fore. For me, a phrase that I keep thinking about is “the law of conservation of problems,” which comes from an environmental science text I once used. Featured in the text to highlight the sometimes-unintended consequences of technological fixes, it broadly suggests that the solutions to complex problems typically create new ones, which also require anticipation and mitigation. In wartime, it should go without saying, the human and fiscals costs of these unintended consequences can be extraordinarily high.
On one hand, it seems overly simple to say that Operation Serval is likely to be long and complicated in unintended ways–the retaliatory and/or opportunistic hostage-taking in Algeria already attests to this. On the other hand, at least in the United States, we are only ten years removed from President Bush’s “mission accomplished” declaration about Iraq. Even through the most optimistic lens, the United States’ upcoming withdrawal from Afghanistan leaves the country’s security and humanitarian situation nothing like most Americans would have accepted in the early years of the war. As books like Peter Beinart’s Icarus Syndrome remind us, wars that initially seem straightforward or winnable often do not turn out to be so; leaders and the public often fail to heed cautionary tales from the past when launching new conflicts.
A look at recent history of U.S. military involvement in Mali and in the region suggests that the French-led mission will not be a straightforward one. From the New York Times on January 13 (well-worth reading in full for greater context):
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.
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.
But all that deliberate planning [a significant U.S.-backed antimilitancy program] collapsed swiftly when heavily armed, battle-hardened Islamist fighters returned from combat in Libya. They teamed up with jihadists like Ansar Dine, routed poorly equipped Malian forces and demoralized them so thoroughly that it set off a mutiny against the government in the capital, Bamako.
When it comes to reversing the decline in Mali, France could be in it for the long haul. The intervention is currently backed by strong public support, with an incredible 75 percent of the French public supporting the war. France’s goals appear to be substantial: in one instance, French president François Hollande declared, “We have one objective: To make sure that when we leave, when we end this intervention, there is security in Mali, legitimate leaders, an electoral process and the terrorists no longer threaten its territory.” However, there seems to be confusion over France’s exact role in achieving these objectives. As former French prime minister Alain Juppé said on Monday, “The original aim was to stop the jihadists and terrorists from reaching Bamako…I have the impression today that we have undertaken the total re-capture of Malian territory, which is an immense task.” Either way, public support is likely to wane as the conflict continues. (For more on the perception of Operation Serval in France, see fellow FPA blogger blogger Maxime Larivé’s terrific analysis here.)
None of this is necessarily an argument against French military intervention in Mali, but it does underscore a few of the many reasons why outside involvement is likely to be long and complicated. And even if one fully supports the idea of airstrikes and boots on the ground for Mali–and some critics raise doubts about this–one can question whether France’s unilateral actions are the most effective way to restore governance, fight against humanitarian suffering and human rights abuses, and combat terrorism. I’ll close on something that Senator Chuck Hagel said to the New York Times on the eve of the Iraq war, “You can take the country into a war pretty fast…but you can’t get us out as quickly, and the public needs to know what the risks are.”