From -- even from -- The New York Times:
January 14, 2012
French Strikes in Mali Supplant Caution of U.S.
BAMAKO, Mali — French fighter jets struck deep inside Islamist strongholds in northern Mali on Sunday, shoving aside months of international hesitation about storming the region after every other effort by the United States and its allies to thwart the extremists had failed.
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.
“It was a disaster,” said one of several senior Malian officers to confirm the defections.
Then an American-trained officer overthrew Mali’s elected government, setting the stage for more than half of the country to fall into the hands of Islamic extremists. American spy planes and surveillance drones have tried to make sense of the mess, but American officials and their allies are still scrambling even to get a detailed picture of who they are up against.
Now, in the face of longstanding American warnings that a Western assault on the Islamist stronghold could rally jihadists around the world and prompt terrorist attacks as far away as Europe, the French have entered the war themselves.
First, they blunted an Islamist advance, saying the rest of Mali would have fallen into the hands of militants within days. Then on Sunday, French warplanes went on the offensive, going after training camps, depots and other militant positions far inside Islamist-held territory in an effort to uproot the militants, who have formed one of the largest havens for jihadists in the world.
Some Defense Department officials, notably officers at the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command, have pushed for a lethal campaign to kill senior operatives of two of the extremists groups holding northern Mali, Ansar Dine and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Killing the leadership, they argued, could lead to an internal collapse.
But with its attention and resources so focused on other conflicts in places like Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya, the Obama administration has rejected such strikes in favor of a more cautious, step-back strategy: helping African nations repel and contain the threat on their own.
Over the last four years, the United States has spent between $520 million and $600 million in a sweeping effort to combat Islamist militancy in the region without fighting the kind of wars it has waged in the Middle East. The program stretched from Morocco to Nigeria, and American officials heralded the Malian military as an exemplary partner. American Special Forces trained its troops in marksmanship, border patrol, ambush drills and other counterterrorism skills.
But all that deliberate planning 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.
A confidential internal review completed last July by the Pentagon’s Africa Command concluded that the coup had unfolded too quickly for American commanders or intelligence analysts to detect any clear warning signs.
“The coup in Mali progressed very rapidly and with very little warning,” said Col. Tom Davis, a command spokesman. “The spark that ignited it occurred within their junior military ranks, who ultimately overthrew the government, not at the senior leadership level where warning signs might have been more easily noticed.”
But one Special Operations Forces officer disagreed, saying, “This has been brewing for five years. The analysts got complacent in their assumptions and did not see the big changes and the impacts of them, like the big weaponry coming out of Libya and the different, more Islamic” fighters who came back.
The same American-trained units that had been seen as the best hope of repelling such an advance proved, in the end, to be a linchpin in the country’s military defeat. The leaders of these elite units were Tuaregs — the very ethnic nomads who were overrunning northern Mali.
According to one senior officer, the Tuareg commanders of three of the four Malian units fighting in the north at the time defected to the insurrection “at the crucial moment,” taking fighters, weapons and scarce equipment with them. He said they were joined by about 1,600 other defectors from within the Malian Army, crippling the government’s hope of resisting the onslaught.
“The aid of the Americans turned out not to be useful,” said another ranking Malian officer, now engaged in combat. “They made the wrong choice,” he said of relying on commanders from a group that had been conducting a 50-year rebellion against the Malian state.
The virtual collapse of the Malian military, including units trained by United States Special Forces, followed by a coup led by an American-trained officer, Capt. Amadou Sanogo, astounded and embarrassed top American military commanders.
“I was sorely disappointed that a military with whom we had a training relationship participated in the military overthrow of an elected government,” Gen. Carter F. Ham, the head of the Africa Command, said in a speech at Brown University last month . “There is no way to characterize that other than wholly unacceptable.”
American officials defended their training, saying it was never intended to be nearly as comprehensive as what the United States has done in Iraq and Afghanistan. “We trained five units over five years but is that going to make a fully fledged, rock-solid military?” asked an American military official familiar with the region.
After the coup, extremists quickly elbowed out the Tuaregs in northern Mali and enforced a harsh brand of Islam on the populace, cutting off hands, whipping residents and forcing tens of thousands to flee. Western nations then adopted a containment strategy, urging African nations to cordon off the north until they could muster a force to oust the Islamists by the fall, at the earliest. To that end, the Pentagon is providing Mauritania new trucks and Niger two Cessna surveillance aircraft, along with training for both countries. [this is because the Obama Administration takes seriously the abilities of, and trusts the loyalties of, local troops -- both the product of terminal naivete and incomprehension].
But even that backup plan failed, as Islamists pushed south toward the capital last week. With thousands of French citizens in Mali, its former colony, France decided it could not wait any longer, striking the militants at the front line and deep within their haven.
Some experts said that the foreign troops might easily retake the large towns in northern Mali, but that Islamist fighters have forced children to fight for them, a deterrent for any invading force, and would likely use bloody insurgency tactics.
“They have been preparing these towns to be a death trap,” said Rudy Atallah, the former director of African counterterrorism policy for the Pentagon. “If an intervention force goes in there, the militants will turn it into an insurgency war.”