This time last week, international intervention plans in Mali consisted of a rather under-powered African (ECOWAS) force, which was expected to arrive no earlier than September.  This force was not backed by overpowering consensus. Nigeria and Mauritania, the two best-equipped militaries in the region, were reluctant to pledge serious troops. The United States insisted that free and fair presidential elections must precede any international intervention, even after a December coup rendered this unrealistic.  And the Malian government itself seemed an obstacle.  The December coup signaled the resurgence of hardliners within the junta, who claimed that the Malian military – broken and demoralized as it was – could deal with northern insurgents on its own.  Tweets out of Mali (and even statements in the press) took a nationalist turn, and international intervention, even by an African force, began to seem fraught.

And now, seven days later, we’re in a brand new world.*

After a rebel offensive took the town of Konna, just a short ways from the strategically vital city of Mopti, interim President Dioncounda Traore declared a national emergency and requested French intervention.  The speed of the response has been dizzying: French airstrikes took place the next day, and a French ground offensive is already in motion.  Tanks and troops have arrived from Ivory Coast and are already making their way northward.  African troops – with a significant (and surprising) troop and operational commitment from Nigeria – will be on the ground in the next week.  Much has been made of Algerian “support” for the French intervention, but we should remember that this is merely permission to overfly Algerian airspace. The Algerian government continues to press for a negotiated solution (as I will discuss further below).  There are many better placed to comment on how Operation Serval will go in terms of operations or how it will affect politics in Bamako.  Right now, Malians are out in the street waving the tricolore, but this could go wrong very quickly.  And we should not be optimistic about quick military success: this is going to be a long slog, which could very well spread beyond Mali’s borders.

How did we get here?  So far, I haven’t seen much analysis of how the US government has been thinking about the security situation in the Sahel over the past year.  So this blog post will be a backward-looking one.  Several of you may have seen the editorial by former US Ambassador to Mali Vikki Huddleston in the New York Times on Monday.  She argues:

Algeria is the only country on the continent with the military capacity, seasoned officers, counterterrorism experience, and geographic proximity to take over from France.  …  Algeria has a moral responsibility to act, but if it continues to stay on the sidelines, then Morocco or another North African country should take the lead — with support from Niger, Mauritania, Mali and Chad, which, like Algeria, have been fighting Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb for the past eight years.

I wasn’t surprised by the editorial, but I was surprised that Mali folks on Twitter seemed surprised.  Those familiar with Mali could easily dismiss this as “magical thinking”, but Huddleston’s views (particularly the line on Algeria) have started to be eerily echoed by foreign policy commentators. But these views aren’t new. Due to the fact that I occasionally talk about counterinsurgency in Nigeria, I have had a handful of conversations with Africom and military folks over the past year.  By last spring, analysts and the defense community were already putting forward a narrative that bore a great deal of similarity to what Huddleston says.  The gist of this approach to Mali is as follows:

1)    The security situation in northern Mali has implications for security all across the region.  If Mali falls, if AQIM cannot be contained there, then we can expect the rest of the Sahelian states to fall one by one.  Yes, that’s right: domino theory in the Sahel.  Generally, I agree with this, especially when it comes to Niger and Chad. Mauritania’s in better shape.  … Oh, though one should point out that AQIM is not the only thing going on in northern Mali (i.e., Tuaregs, MNLA, even Ansar Dine ≠ AQIM).

A few commentators have asked why we should be interested in Mali, given the country itself has little strategic value for the US. When we look at this through a regional or state system lens, there are obviously concrete implications for US national security.  On this, the defense establishment had it right.

2)    Algeria is our only hope.  This seemed naïve and wrong-headed when I first heard it back in the spring, as if a boardroom meeting had culminated in someone saying “so who do we know who’s good at taking out Islamists?”  I never would have thought Algeria a good bet for intervention.  The regime in Algiers was more fragile in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, and it also had to think of relations with new and (at that time) stable Islamist governments in Tunisia and Egypt.  Popular support for Algeria’s Islamist opposition could conceivably be deeper than we think.  And, sadly, today brings news of yet another reason why Algeria would be reluctant to get involved in Mali.  AQIM has seized over 40 hostages at an Algerian gas field, reinforcing what some suspected: AQIM (or an associated group) is still operating in Algeria, despite Algerian military actions that were supposedly definitive.  Put simply, there are concrete Algerian policy considerations at work; this isn’t just knee-jerk resistance to France or “neo-colonialism,” as some commentators and journalists have suggested.

Despite good reasons for Algeria to remain on the sidelines, the US has continued to see it as a lynchpin to intervention in the region.  In late October, right before the elections, Secretary of State Clinton spent a few days in Algeria pressing for their involvement in a multilateral effort.  This visit did not yield any results, but the continuing policy focus on Algeria may explain the US’s general resistance to alternative plans and its reluctance to do more than call for elections. This is the context in which Susan Rice dismissed the French plan – which focused on a regional intervention force – as “crap”.  France also sent its own high-level envoys to Algeria, which again yielded no shift in policy. Algerian government statements have consistently amounted to “Mali should sort its own issues via negotiations with its rebels. We’re not changing our mind on this.”  I’m skeptical that we’ll see a turnaround on this, though France is doing the right thing by trying to gain support for the intervention in the Middle East (which could provide Algeria with some cover, as would more terrorist activity within Algeria).

3)   The dominoes have a stake in Mali, and they should therefore be willing to bear the costs of intervention.   This is the assumption of much of the policy thinking on multilateralism over the past decade, and I think the troubles of assembling an ECOWAS response to Mali should make us think deeply about how we approach the whole “African solutions to African problems” (or any other regional peace-keeping) thing.  Our African partners, like states elsewhere in the world, need to think of their own interests first.  And an under-provisioned ECOWAS intervention, as configured before this week, would not have strengthened immediate security for any of its members – and may, indeed, have made some states more vulnerable.  Nigeria has its own internal insurgency to deal with (Boko Haram), which is of much greater immediate concern to the military.  Nor has Mauritania, the country probably most vulnerable to blowback, been enthusiastic about committing itself to a direct intervention.  Instead, in a demonstration of how national interest can be served short of riskier multilateral interventions, Mauritania has massed its troops along the border and run occasional raids into Malian territory.  As a friend put it, Mauritania’s own security may be best served by doing no more than occasionally lobbing shells into Mali to dissuade AQIM from moving west.  Operation Serval has changed the calculus here, and Chad and Niger have lined up more troops.  Mauritania, perhaps under pressure from France, now also seems likely to participate.  To put this point simply, our regional partners have their own interests and constraints, and we shouldn’t presume that these will lead them seamlessly toward collective solutions.

Is there a take-home from all this?  Let me throw out three.

First off, US policy just isn’t able to draw on a strong enough base of expertise to deal with the new security challenges we’re facing.  This is true in Africa; this is true in the Middle East; this is true in South Asia.  Because of this, there tends to be a stasis to US policy in these parts of the world: once we get stuck on one narrative, it’s hard to turn.

Secondly, Mali should also mark the end of thinking that US counterinsurgency training of regional partners – which played no small role in producing the crisis in Mali – will yield its desired results.   And, if Mali isn’t convincing, pull up a chair and let me tell you about Nigeria.

Finally, the implications may be even greater for regional peace-keeping.  Both policy-makers and academics have often thought of regional multilateralism as a low-cost means of dealing with security situations that don’t directly threaten US or European interests.  Mali isn’t the crucial test here, but evidence seems to be accumulating that interventions are more effective where they’re underwritten by a single, well-resourced and committed state (Kenya in Somalia; France in Cote d’Ivoire; etc).  This isn’t to say that true multilateralism is doomed to fail – and the French intervention may evolve in that direction – but we need to take seriously the collective action problems that characterize multilateral interventions.

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** Journalists have rushed to catch up, but the news coverage on Mali hasn’t been great (New York Times: I’m looking at you). In the meantime, aspiring insta-pundits may be better served by following on Twitter: Andrew Lebovich (@tweetsintheME), Todd Moss of CGD (@toddjmoss), and journalist Peter Tinti (@petertinti).  Elsewhere: anything the recommended Twitter-ers (?) have written in traditional outlets; Bruce Whitehouse’s blog; everything Greg Mann has written at Africa Is a Country, and the recording of a December USIP event featuring Susanna Wing.