With hundreds of French troops in Mali and hundreds more headed that way, the U.S., among other countries, has also pledged some limited support: intelligence, communication, logistics, unarmed drones. But Washington obviously would like to keep a low profile. The U.S. in fact, had been militating against just such a move, fearing that another Western intervention in an Arab land would provide another ideal recruiting target for erstwhile jihadis across the Muslim world, not to mention provoking a spate of terrorist attacks in Europe.
In fact, though, it turns out that the U.S. has already played a disastrous role in the crisis. It's a devastating lesson of plans gone awry, another dreary footnote to the law of unintended consequences.
According to an excellent New York Times account, for the past several years the United States has spent more than half a billion dollars in West Africa to counter the threat of radical Islam, America's "most ambitious counterterrorism program ever across these vast, turbulent stretches of the Sahara."
The aim of the program was that, rather than rely on the U.S. and its allies to combat Islamic terrorism in the region, the United States would train African troops to deal with the threat themselves.
To that end, for five years U.S. Special Forces trained Malian troops in a host of vital combat and counterterrorism skills. The outcome was considered by the Pentagon to be exemplary
That is, until the training program ran into another unintended consequence -- of the French-led intervention in Libya. After the fall of Gaddafi, droves of battle-hardened, well-armed Islamic fighters and Tuareg tribesmen, who had been fighting in Libya, swarmed into Northern Mali.
Joined by other more radical Islamist forces, some linked to al Qaeda, they had no trouble defeating the Malian army. Why? Because of the defection to the rebels of several key Malian officers, who had been trained by the Americans. Turns out that those officers, who were supposed to battle the rebels, were ethnic Tuaregs, the same nomads who were part of the rebellion.
According to the Times, at the height of the battle the Tuareg commanders of three of the four Malian units in the north decided to change sides and join the insurrection, taking weapons, valuable equipment and their American training with them. They were also followed by 1,600 additional army defectors, demolishing the government's hope of resisting the rebel attack.
In other words, it's very likely that the French and their allies-to-come in Mali will be battling rebel troops trained by the U.S. Special Forces.
Caught totally by surprise by the whole ghastly mess, the American officials involved with the training program were reportedly flabbergasted.
There are obvious questions: How was it possible for the Special Forces and their Pentagon bosses and the CIA to have had such a total lack of understanding of the Malian officers they'd trained and the country they'd been operating in for over five years? But you could ask that same question about U.S. military actions in any number of countries over the past few decades, from Lebanon to Iraq to Afghanistan, where the most apt comparison might be to releasing elephants into a porcelain shop.
Which leads to a more fundamental question: how is the U.S. to avoid similar catastrophic mistakes down the road in Africa? The Pentagon has recently announced that some 3,000 troops, no longer needed in Afghanistan, have been reassigned to work with the local military in 35 countries across Africa -- to deal with the threat of al Qaeda-linked terrorism. Sounds just like what was going on in Mali.
But does anyone really think the U.S. and its military will have a better understanding of the myriad forces, tribes, religions, governments, legal and illicit financial interests struggling for power and influence in those countries than it did in Mali?
Or Iraq, or Afghanistan or Iran or Somalia or Lebanon, or Vietnam, or Cambodia?
And has France now embarked down the same tragic path?