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Money for Mali

Some confusion at State – and fast cash from the White House.

8:05 AM, Feb 14, 2013 • By ROGER KAPLAN
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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The tactless invoicing – reportedly quickly rescinded -- was followed by a textbook demonstration of diplomatic foot-in-mouthism.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.

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