With the quiet announcement that the United States is earmarking $50 million from the defense budget immediately for France and Niger, two countries in the forefront of the battle for Mali against Islamist hordes and Tuareg secessionists, the Obama administration appears to be indicating that it views with a jaundiced eye the potential of our enemies to burst out of the Sahara, cross the Niger river, and wreak havoc throughout the Sahel and beyond.

The announcement presumably protects this particular policy from the slash-and-burn style of budgeting both parties threaten to use in lieu of coming to a reasonable compromise on the spending of the people’s money.

It also clarifies, for the moment, the somewhat incoherent policy toward Mali that has marked the administration and the State Department since the outbreak of the Mali war last year.

About two weeks ago, the State Department presented the French government with a bill for the use of our C-17 transports, which have shuttled French and West African troops from bases in France and West Africa to the Mali front. The latter appears to have stabilized with the occupation by the French-led coalition’s troops of northern Mali’s major population centers, though at least one of these, Gao (on the Niger), already has felt the impact of the extremists’ suicide tactics. The hardest part of the campaign remains ahead, as the armed bands find refuge in the mountain redoubts of the Iforas in the deep Saharan southwest.

The tactless invoicing – reportedly quickly rescinded -- was followed by a textbook demonstration of diplomatic foot-in-mouthism. Former U.S. ambassador to Bamako Vicki Huddleston chose this moment to discuss publicly the payment by France and the European Union of ransom for hostages—several of whom remain in their captors’ hands—in recent years. France has neither confirmed nor denied its willingness to bargain for hostages, and it has also launched a number of military raids, some fatally unsuccessful, in efforts to free its nationals. Whatever the correct policy on this issue, observers in France and Mali found the timing of the retired Bush administration official (and career FSO, suggesting on odd sort of discipline at State these days) somewhat perplexing, all the more so as only a week or two before she had expressed in the pages of the New York Times a forceful if confused argument for doing whatever is necessary to save Mali.

Was this a divergence between the White House and the State Department, or simply a case of bookkeeping following its own logic while a former official exercised poor judgment? But would any of this happen if we had a clear policy in the first place? Before, during, and since Ambassador Huddleston’s service in Bamako we have responded to the underlying rot in Mali in various ways, ranging from denial to anger to obstruction to exasperation, that may be okay in therapists’ suites but do not bespeak serious foreign policy thinking.

The French are, at present, trying to replace their (comparatively) heavy footprint in Mali (about 4,000 soldiers and airmen engaged) with a much lighter one, which requires that an African force take their place in policing the north while the political leaders in Bamako figure out a new governance arrangement, and regional leaders come to an understanding about security in the wider region.

These are both tall orders. The Mali army is still in complete disarray—fighting between units broke out last week following efforts to break up a former presidential guard regiment that desires to maintain its own cohesion—and the politicians are nowhere nearer than they were last March following the coup against President Amadou Touré to finding an avenue back to constitutional legality. Regional leaders have expressed support for the northern campaign, with Niger’s president, Mahmadou Issoufou, in particular, indicating that this is not the time to cut and run.

That possibility came up because the French hinted they might try to cut a deal with the avowedly secular and democratic Tuareg secessionists of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). As a practical matter, the idea would be to take the MNLA up on their offer to help the French police the north in exchange for pressure from Paris on Bamako to support their secessionist goals. Issoufou’s position is that such a subversion of Mali’s sovereignty, however enfeebled Bamako is, would undercut all the good will France has earned by its lightning and thus far successful intervention.

In any case, it is unclear whether the MNLA, whom the Malians consider responsible for starting the war last year, has the capability either to police the north or to represent it politically. The north contains a mix of peoples, some of whom get along and some of whom hate each other, and for cause; the Tuareg represent only a minority, one that certainly has deep historical roots in the region, but so do others. There is no way to know how representative the MNLA is of the Tuareg. It may have deep tribal support, or it may be an émigré organization with a website and a few machine guns mounted on 4x4’s.

Tuareg civic and religious leaders in Timbuktu and Gao and Kidal, where there are strong concentrations of Tuareg, have spoken of the French as liberators and stated that solutions to the north’s longstanding problems must be found within a Malian framework. Darker-skinned peoples in the north (and for that matter in the south) identify the Tuareg with slave practices, some of which, particularly sex-slavery, reportedly were resumed in areas under the control of both secular and jihadist Tuareg fighters. These of course must be verified, as do reverse outrages by the advancing (black) Malian troops against Tuareg inhabitants.

Northern Mali, according to spokesmen for the MNLA, never should have been included in an independent Mali. Be that as it may, there is not a government in the region that considers the partition of Sudan two years ago a useful model of governance. Of course this neither proves nor disproves that the concerned populations are happy with the old colonial borders inherited by the present governments. Secessionist movements are not lacking; best known are the Western Sahara national movement and the Berberist national movement in Kabylia, a region of Algeria. But in a climate of deep hatred and with accusations of grave abuses in the air, the north’s first requirement is a neutral power—if there is one—that can restore basic security.

Maybe all this is too confusing for bookkeepers at State and Defense and for retired FSOs with strong feelings, hence the invoicing mix-up and excited op-ed. The White House apparently had little hesitation about paying military expenses for friends in need. Keeping them in business a bit longer will at least buy all the concerned parties some time to take steps to prevent a free-for-all that would have consequences well beyond northern Mali. And it may even give us time to sort out what we ought to know about a distant place of which, by all evidence, we have much to learn.

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