The French Mess in Mali and Libya

In addition, the insurgents might resort to what war wonks call asymmetric attacks and horizontal escalation—in plain English, unconventional operations aimed at Western interests far from the battlefield. The attack on the Algerian gas field at In Amenas, located near Algeria’s border with Libya, by an Islamist group allied with the main Malian Tuareg Islamist group, Ansar Al-Dine, is a textbook example.

This operation captured some 40 Western hostages, including from France and the United States, as well as from Britain and Norway, whose oil companies are helping Algeria’s state oil company, Sonatrach, run the field. A number of hostages were killed when the Algerians launched a rescue.

Then there’s the possibility of attacks in France itself—harder to pull off but scarcely impossible—or on French citizens or installations in north and west Africa, which would be easier to do.

President Francois Hollande has inherited the fallout from his predecessor’s Libyan venture, and France could find itself in just the pickle it wants to avoid. And the United States and Britain, who have said they’ll limit themselves to providing France and the African troops indirect support (logistical and intelligence), may have to decide whether to let France twist in the wind. Doing so would hardly be good for NATO solidarity. Getting in deeper could create a range of risks.

Qaddafi’s fall initiated an unanticipated chain reaction and Mali’s U.S.-trained army was overwhelmed by it. This campaign is far from over. And it validates another lesson (the first being the risk of unintended consequences): It’s easy to start military operations, but as the great theorist of war Karl von Clausewitz warned, what’s predictable about war is its unpredictability. Clausewitz called this problem “friction.” Friction can shred even the best-laid plans. And it could do so in Mali.

Rajan Menon is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of Political Science at the City College of New York/City University of New York, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the author, most recently, of The End of Alliances.

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