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French Action in Mali Gives U.S. Breathing Space

Illustration by Bloomberg View

Jan. 17 (Bloomberg) -- It took the fear that Mali’s capital would fall to Islamic militants for the U.S. and France to part agreeably on the question of intervention. France has sent troops; the U.S. won’t, though it will help in other ways.

That’s an appropriate division of labor, given the different stakes the countries have in Mali. It’s a welcome one, too. The U.S. can’t spearhead every battle against jihadists with global ambitions. If U.S. campaigns in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen created that impression, the Mali model ought to put the notion to rest.

For months, the U.S. and France had disagreed about how best to time and sequence measures to confront the jihadists who have taken control of northern Mali. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, went so far as to use a four-letter obscenity to deride a French proposal in December for swift intervention by an African force.

Originally, the French had no plan to send in their own military, but the jihadists’ move toward Bamako changed that. French fighters and helicopter gunships began attacking rebel positions on Jan. 11.

France is particularly concerned by the fall of Mali’s northern half to Islamic radicals. Thousands of French citizens live in Mali, a former French colony. A handful are held hostage by militant groups. Intelligence reports suggest terrorists have trained in Mali for attacks in France. Moreover, with business interests in former colonies surrounding Mali, France has a stake in containing the spread of extremism.

French Enthusiasm

Mali’s radicals pose less of a danger to U.S. interests, although U.S. citizens appear to be among hostages taken by militants in Algeria Jan. 16, in retaliation for Algeria’s allowing France to use its airspace for Mali operations.

Whereas the war-weary U.S. public probably wouldn’t have supported sending U.S. forces to Mali, the French have been enthusiastic about President Francois Hollande’s Malian action, to which he has committed 2,500 troops.

The U.S., which is sharing intelligence with France, may also lend logistical support. Even that could prove unnecessary. Germany, Italy and the U.K. have already pledged to assist France’s effort.

As four of the world’s 10 largest economies, these countries can afford to take on more of the burden of tackling global jihadists. The U.S. devotes 4.8 percent of its gross domestic product to defense, while Europe spends 1.6 percent. What’s more, defense spending is decreasing in Europe.

The French say they won’t stay in Mali long. They hope to turn security matters over to a coalition of Mali’s army and a promised 3,300-strong force drawn from the militaries of Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Niger and Senegal, members of the Economic Community of West African States.

The Malian and Ecowas troops will need significant training to become field-ready. The European Union has promised to take that on. This is helpful given that U.S. law forbids assistance to Mali’s government, because it remains dominated by the makers of a coup last March.

Of greater and more immediate help would be counterterrorism forces from Mali’s larger neighbors -- Mauritania, Algeria and Niger. Their role would not be to take and hold territory but to conduct quick raids against the few thousand hardened fighters in northern Mali. The U.S., which has close security relations with all three countries, could help facilitate their engagement.

In doing so, the U.S. would be supporting its allies in their pursuit of security without having to act as first responder. With jihadist threats apt to pop up in many places at almost any time, even the world’s so-called indispensable nation needs that option.

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