Not the last war

The Pak Banker - - OPINION - Ch­ester A. Crocker

HIS­TORY has of­ten shown that mil­i­tary vic­to­ries do not au­to­mat­i­cally trans­late into po­lit­i­cal success. This is true in the re­cent mil­i­tary vic­tory of French and government of Mali forces in their fight against rad­i­cal in­sur­gents who tried to seize power in the North African na­tion. The small vic­tory in Mali is just the be­gin­ning of what will likely be a very long strug­gle for con­trol of the Sa­hel - the trans-Sa­ha­ran bad­lands that stretch from the At­lantic Ocean to the Red Sea.

We all know now that pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush was pre­ma­ture when he said in 2003 that "ma­jor com­bat op­er­a­tions in Iraq have ended" as he stood in front of a ban­ner read­ing "Mis­sion Ac­com­plished." It would be equally pre­ma­ture to­day to say that success in Mali sig­nals the de­feat of ex­trem­ist forces in the Sa­hel. The Sa­hel di­vides the Sa­hara desert from the grass­lands to the south. The un­sta­ble re­gion stretches 3,400 miles west to east across parts of Sene­gal, Mau­ri­ta­nia, Mali, Al­ge­ria, Niger, Chad, Su­dan, South Su­dan and Eritrea. Mili­tias roam the re­gion traf­fick­ing in drugs and arms, seiz­ing hostages for ran­som, and trad­ing live­stock.

The tur­moil in the Sa­hel is shap­ing up to be a long-play­ing con­flict that will end well only with the help of African re­gional or­gan­i­sa­tions, West­ern na­tions, non­govern­men­tal groups, and the United Na­tions pro­vid­ing a mix of mil­i­tary, diplo­matic and eco­nomic as­sis­tance. Col­lec­tive con­flict man­age­ment car­ried out by im­pro­vised, case-spe­cific net­works op­er­at­ing in in­for­mal co­op­er­a­tion is ur­gently needed. While it draws scant at­ten­tion from the West­ern me­dia, the Sa­hel-North Africa re­gion is ac­tu­ally more im­por­tant than Afghanistan to the vi­tal in­ter­ests of West­ern pow­ers. North Africa pro­vides en­ergy se­cu­rity for Europe with its vast oil and nat­u­ral gas de­posits, along with mar­itime se­cu­rity in the Mediter­ranean. Gov­ern­ments in the re­gion have the po­ten­tial to fos­ter demo­cratic change in postau­thor­i­tar­ian states. But the Sa­hel is un­likely to ever see large-scale troop de­ploy­ments from Nato coun­tries that are war-weary and fi­nan­cially tapped out from fight­ing in Iraq and Afghanistan. Un­for­tu­nately, an over-re­liance on coun­tert­er­ror­ism as the driver of pol­icy risks dis­tort­ing the true na­ture of the con­flict in Mali and the broader Sa­hel, even if the fight against ter­ror­ism serves as an ef­fec­tive ar­gu­ment for ral­ly­ing re­sources and sup­port in West­ern cap­i­tals. Com­bat­ing rad­i­cals will re­quire a light touch of co­er­cive power, a finely tuned aware­ness of com­plex mi­cro-pol­i­tics, and a sea­soned grasp of the in­ter­play of re­gional cur­rents.

A year ago we con­vened African, Mid­dle East­ern and strate­gic ex­perts for dis­cus­sions in Washington to con­tem­plate the causes, con­se­quences and pos­si­ble re­sponses to the zone of in­sta­bil­ity in the Sa­hel. We looked at the un­fore­seen ef­fects of the fall of Muam­mar Gaddafi in Libya - from the move­ment of fight­ers and weapons across vast, un­marked bor­ders, to the loss of a wealthy and some­times help­ful pa­tron of African clients across large swaths of the Sa­hara. In the un­planned flow of peo­ple, ideas, money and goods be­tween the Mediter­ranean rim coun­tries and their south­ern neigh­bours af­ter the Libyan rev­o­lu­tion we saw few net win­ners, lots of losers, and a com­pelling need to build new part­ner­ships for se­cu­rity and peace-build­ing. For ex­am­ple, we con­cluded a year ago that France and Al­ge­ria needed to up their game to ad­dress the ris­ing ten­sions in Mali, driven in part by de­mands by mem­bers of the Tuareg eth­nic group and by the grow­ing as­sertive­ness of Al Qaeda in the Maghreb.

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