Mali: How to get it wrong (and right)

It’s not only Generals who can be accused of fighting the last war. Pundits and journalists have the same problem, except that in addition they usually have little knowledge of the subject they are writing about anyway, and so turn to handy recent examples for help.

The punditocracy has decided, it seems, that the French intervention in Mali was entirely justified and largely positive, but that the West nonetheless risks a repetition of the problems of Afghanistan in northern Mali. To anyone who knows either of the countries, this comparison must seem unlikely, but it’s a feature of the limited range of examples on which pundits can draw. If it’s not like X, in other words, it must be like Y.

The reality is that all cases are different, but that there are some risks which are generic. One such risk (and here Afghanistan is a precedent) is that uncritical support of the West for a regime which is steadily losing the adherence of its own people can alienate individuals and groups, and cause them to become de facto allies of the rebels. This hasn’t happened yet in Mali, but it obviously could.

The best way of avoiding it is to keep the operation short and sharp, and limit its aims to defeating the rebels, and restoring the status quo ante, in which they control parts of the north of the country, but don’t threaten the main population centres. The more the West tries to transform the country and its security forces, and the more it tries to extend Bamako’s power and reach, the more resistance it will produce. At that point, comparisons with Afghanistan might actually start to become reasonable.

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