Thursday, January 31, 2013

Chuck Hagel, Mali and US policy in North Africa and the Middle East

Secretary of Defense designate Chuck Hagel

They say they are Muslims, but I don’t know any Muslim who does not pray,” Mr. Diallo said.

A comment by Boubacar Diallo, a resident of Gao, after French and Malian forces expelled Ansar al-Din rebels from the northen Malian city this past January 26th.

The brouhaha surrounding the nomination of Chuck Hagel to replace Leon Panetta as Secretary of Defense has centered around his views on whether military force should be used to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and his views on Israel.  It seems clear that attacks on Hagel for his purported unwillingness to be tough with Iran and assertions that he does not support Israel are unwarranted.   

What is lost in the debate over Hagel’s qualifications to become Secretary of Defense is the new reality of the US’ position in the Middle East and on the larger world stage.  What is the relationship between Hagel’s nomination, the current conflict in Mali and, going forward, US foreign policy in the Middle East?

It is clear from the ongoing budget cuts at the Department of Defense which will result in 46000 layoffs of full-time and part-time employees, and the general pairing down of expenditures on the military, especially if the next sequester is not avoided, that the US’ capacity to deploy troops in multiple theaters of war will be severely constrained in the future.  Clearly, US forces have been stretched thin in fighting two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, let alone opening a new front in Mali and north central Africa.

Intuitively, those who want to sustain a robust US military presence in the Middle East and elsewhere – often subsumed under the rubric, “neo-conservative” - understand that the Hagel nomination indicates that the US military policy has turned the corner and is entering new uncharted waters.  While this does not mean that the US will become isolationist , it does mean that the use of military force will become a rarity in the future.  When military force is deployed, it will most likely come through a policy of “leading from behind,” as occurred in the deposing of Libyan dictator, Muammar al-Qaddafi.

Events in Mali indicate the complexities US foreign policy faces in the Middle East. The first word that must dominate any military strategic plan is “sustained conflict.”  In other words, the French intervention in Mali, which is backed by US air support in ferrying troops and supplies,  cannot be limited to a quick “strike and withdraw.”  In the face of French and African forces, Ansar al-Din rebels, and their leader, Iyad Ag Ghahl, have faded into their mountain redoubts in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountain ordering Algeria and Niger. Only those with knowledge of the local terrain will be able to ferret these irregular forces out of their caves and other hiding places.

Much of what is happening in Mali is the result of a volatile mix of young men who lack employment opportunities, groups which have longstanding ethnic grievances – in this instance   the Tuareg, who have formed the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) – and a dysfunctional Malian military which overthrew a democratically elected government but subsequently has been unable to rule the country or secure its territory.

The large weapons systems that the US has relied upon in the past will no longer be useful for combating armed insurgencies such as the ongoing conflict in northern Mali and south western Algeria.  Barack Obama is ahead of the curve in realizing – unlike his neo-conservative critics – that the world has changed, both in terms of the type of warfare that the US will increasingly in the future and the capacity of the US to contain such insurgencies such as we see in Mali, both financially and in terms of (wo)manpower.

Thus Chuck Hagel is emblematic of a new foreign policy in which the use of massive military force will be limited to dire circumstances in which the national security of the United States is directly threatened.  Reliance on drones, special forces, and internationally constituted military coalitions, such as those formed in Libya and now in Mali, will become the new normal.   

This policy orientation will be supplemented by “cultural warfare” (the hackneyed but critical need to “win hearts and minds") as the US trains more of its college graduates in knowledge of foreign cultures, and critical languages, such as Arabic, Farsi, Pashto and Chinese, among others, and deploys them as analysts and embassy personnel where they will need to address conflicts, such as those arising from ethnic grievances, in a proactive manner.

Of course, those who would like to see the US strike Iran do not only seek to seriously damage its nuclear weapons program but to also send a message to other would-be rogue states which seek to become nuclear powers such as North Korea.  Despite Hagel’s assertions that he would consider an attack on Iran if it acquires nuclear weapons, the probability that President Obama would authorize such an attack is extremely low.  The Obama administration knows that such an attack would have disastrous consequences,  not only for the stability of the Persian Gulf and the larger Middle East, but for international energy prices which would skyrocket in the wake of such an attack, further destabilizing a weak global economy.

The “Malian scenario,” which we can expect to see repeated in other areas of the Middle East, e.g., among PKK guerrillas in Turkey who seek greater autonomy for Turkey’s large Kurdish minority, or terrorist groups such as al-Qa'ida in the Mesopotamian Valley and it umbrella organization, the Islamic State of Iraq, that have reconstituted themselves in northern Iraq, will require two strategies.  First, such conflicts will require great patience on the part of the West and local allies as they cannot be solved overnight.  Second, they will require increased cooperation with local populations who share the US’ rejection of terrorism, and the use of violence to resolve long term conflicts. 

Cultural warfare, in the form of public diplomacy, e.g., increasing educational opportunities for Middle Eastern students in the US and the West, must extend to the political realm.  If Kurds in Turkey feel their grievances are being addressed, they will not support the violence-oriented PKK.  Sunni Arabs, in the so-called Sunni Arab Triangle of north central Iraq, will not support al-Qa’ida or the Islamic State of Iraq, and the Tuareg in northern Mali and southern Algeria will not fight alongside radical forces (indeed the MNLA has cut its ties with Ansar al-Din because it has come to realize that the organization is not interested in helping the Tuareg address their ethnic grievances).
Once again, Barack Obama has demonstrated his political savvy in foreign policy decision-making by appointing John Kerry to be Hillary Clinton’s replacement as Secretary of State and Chuck Hagel to replace Leon Panetta at Defense.  Those who fret about the US’ reduced military role in the world should be thankful that the Obama administration is developing a new approach to the Middle East that is not only be more cost effective in implementing US foreign policy goals in the region, but, more importantly, will save American lives.

As the quote at the beginning of this post indicates, those who live under the rule of Ansar al-Din, or other radical “Islamist” groups (I put Islamist in quotes because these groups really have nothing to do with Islam), universally reject their authority.  Being whipped, mutilated, having fingers cut off when found smoking, being prevented from watching soccer matches on TV, and women being forbidden from leaving their homes unless they follow strict dress codes and are accompanied by male relatives, has thoroughly alienated those who have experienced such “Islamist” rule.  Groups like Ansar al-Din are, in reality, common criminals operating under a veneer of an invented religion which they call Islam.

The good news is that the US can, through more effective cultural, public diplomacy and reconstruction strategies, in cooperation with international and local partners and UN agencies, win the support of those civilians who are caught in the cross-fire of the type of conflict currently underway in northern Mali.  The local populace seeks political stability and economic prosperity, not the sustained violence which leads to the destruction of their towns and cities.

We need someone like Chuck Hagel who is not afraid to adapt US military policy to the new realities of long-term insurgent and asymmetric warfare.  The 21st century is very different from the prior century.  US policy-makers and academic analysts are only beginning to realize the nature of the new challenges the US faces in the Middle East and elsewhere in the non-Western world.

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