As I write this, the news is still fragmentary and unfolding concerning the Algerian hostage situation following France's military intervention in Mali and effort to arrest the territorial gains made by the jihadists. However this latest crisis plays out, events thus far seem to expose several of the Obama administration's strategic deficiencies, including:
Premature declaration of victory over al Qaeda. As if we needed yet another reminder, the White House's past declarations of looming victory against "core al Qaeda" were woefully premature. This is most costly not as a public relations blunder but as a strategic blunder; when an administration's leadership signals a change in strategic priorities, the rest of the national security apparatus shifts accordingly. Such a premature spiking of the ball seems to have influenced the administration's mishandling of the Benghazi consulate attack, and now seems to have caused a corresponding neglect of Mali. Yet Mali may be emerging as just the latest front in the war, as Peter Chilson points out the bracing fact that "Northern Mali is currently the largest al Qaeda-controlled space in the world."
The shifting fissures and fusions of various jihadist groups, a kaleidoscopic combination of local grievances and global aspirations, should not obscure that in the minds of the terrorists there is in part an international and universal dimension to their campaign. Terrorist leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar's reported demand that the U.S. release the "blind sheikh" Omar Abdel-Rahman, imprisoned for his role in masterminding the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, is just one example of their grievances towards America. Whether or not the al Qaeda branch in northern Mali is ever able to stage an attack against the continental United States, its hostage operation against the Algerian gas field installation shows a capability and willingness to target U.S. interests and allies (such as the French, British, and Japanese employees). That alone should justify a more vigorous American response than the Obama administration has thus far marshaled.
Leading from behind. An Obama administration official first proudly described the White House's multilateral strategy as "leading from behind" in the context of the Libya intervention. What might have sounded good then does not sound so good now, as unfortunately the Mali chaos emanates directly from the Libya spillover, and the corresponding failure to engage in an effective post-conflict stabilization operation. Now the latest chapter of "leading from behind" has the French intervening in Mali while the U.S. sits on the sidelines. This has the effect of further annoying important NATO allies while ceding leverage and initiative to the jihadists. The U.S. admittedly has limited resources and bandwidth to bring to bear here, so I am not making the simplistic argument that an earlier full-scale American intervention would have been easy or solved the problems besetting Mali. But while the downsides of excessive involvement are well-known, the ongoing crisis shows in turn the downsides of dogmatic passivity.
Anemic religious freedom policy. Six months ago I wrote about Mali and made the point that violations of religious freedom are often a leading indicator of a looming security threat (an argument later elaborated here). As I said at the time:
"One worrisome indicator is the jihadists' destruction of traditional Muslim burial grounds and other iconic sites, a sign of the vicious religious intolerance that militant Islamists show towards other Muslims, let alone believers in non-Islamic faiths ... This campaign of religious intolerance may be an early warning indicator of a looming security threat, particularly if northern Mali becomes a terrorist safe-haven and magnet for jihadists planning attacks on the West ... at a minimum, American counterterrorism and religious-freedom policymakers should be watching Mali closely, and talking to each other. In the case of Mali, their concerns may be more aligned then they realize."
Unfortunately the Mali situation is just the latest indicator that the Obama administration still has not made religious freedom policy a priority, either as a value in its own right or as a strategic interest. From that time six months ago, conditions only worsened in Mali as the jihadists began imposing their perverse version of Islamic law. If the Obama administration had been paying more attention to religious liberty deteriorations, it would not have been as surprised at Mali's perilous straits.
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