As the analyst Andrew Lebovich writes, US statements on Mali have been “contradictory,” creating confusion about the trajectory of Washington’s policy toward the country. The State Department seems to have undergone a genuine change of heart concerning the wisdom of an armed intervention in Mali by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). But it is harder to read words and deeds coming from the Department of Defense and the White House, especially regarding the possibility of direct US military action in northern Mali.
Department of State
Foggy Bottom’s position on Mali has evolved considerably over the last few months. To quote from an earlier post:
In May, [Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie] Carson told reporters that ECOWAS’ “mission and role” in Mali “must be defined before we make any kind of commitment.” Remarks by Carson in late June sounded even less enthusiastic: “We think an ECOWAS mission to militarily retake the north is ill-advised and not feasible.”
In September, however,
In an interview with VOA, Carson said Mali’s military should accept an intervention force from the Economic Community of West African States, because the army is fractured by the flight of soldiers to Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania.
“The Malian military has been broken. It is now in need of restructuring and repair and rehabilitation,” Carson explained. “It should accept the support, the camaraderie, the mentoring and the friendship of other ECOWAS states as it attempts to get itself together so that it can help address the issues of terrorism in the northern part of the country, as well as humanitarian support.”
ECOWAS appears to have convinced State, then, that it has a plan for helping the Malian government retake territory in the north, and that supporting this plan is better than the status quo.
[UPDATE]: As Twitter user Stephanie Lamy adds, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has indicated that US support for an ECOWAS intervention may hinge on whether the Malian government is able to hold elections before the deployment. At the UN General Assembly meeting last week, Clinton said, “In the end, only a democratically elected government will have the legitimacy to achieve a negotiated political settlement in northern Mali, end the rebellion and restore the rule of law.”
Department of Defense and the White House
Last week, General Carter Ham, head of US AFRICOM, visited Mauritania, Morocco, and Algeria to discuss the crisis in Mali. Amid ongoing discussions of an external military intervention in Mali, Gen. Ham’s stated that the US will not be directly involved:
“We first need to re-establish a legitimate government in Bamako, meet the pressing needs of the people, deal with the serious humanitarian crisis ravaging the region and finally tackle the terrorist groups,” General Ham said. He stressed that “the only alternative which could not exist is the American military presence in northern Mali”.
The Washington Post, however, recently reported that the Obama administration has considered forms of direct intervention in Mali and elsewhere in the region:
“Right now, we’re not in position to do much about [the presence of terrorist groups in northern Mali],” said a senior U.S. counterterrorism official involved in the talks. As a result, he said, officials have begun to consider contingencies, including the question of “do we or don’t we” deploy drones.
This is not the first time that US officials have raised the possibility of American force against militants in northern Mali. In July, Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Sheehan made remarks that sound similar to Gen. Ham’s, but did not rule out the use of violence:
“Mali is a difficult situation because it starts with the government in Bamako,” Sheehan said. “We have to find a way to move forward with the government first and I think we need to start to accelerate that effort.”
Sheehan went on to say that the area north of Mali’s Niger River has become almost ungoverned and an area of focus for the Department of Defense.
“We cannot allow al Qaeda to sit in ungoverned places,” Sheehan said of northern Mali.
Sheehan indicated the U.S. military is considering how to handle the problem.
“All those options will be considered,” Sheehan said. “There have been no decisions and things would be considered and they are being concerned to what is a looming threat.”
The common denominator in these statements is an emphasis on establishing the integrity of the Malian government as the first step toward solving the country’s crises. Beyond that, though, there is significant uncertainty about Washington’s intentions.
The statements from State and Defense can be reconciled; indeed, in a way they are separate conversations, one having to do with supporting ECOWAS and the other having to do with direct US military action against militants. This thematic difference is reflected in a geographical one, with State seeming to focus on West Africa and Defense seeming to focus (at least in Ham’s trip) on North Africa. Indeed it is the very sense that the two conversations are separate, and that Defense has not made a firm decision on the form its involvement will take, that leaves me struggling to discern where Washington’s Mali policy is headed.