Honi Soit Qui Mali Pense

Shame be upon those who think about Mali. A bad pun to be sure, and an unabashed attention-getter, but in view of a front page article in the January 30 New York Times, it is a thought deserving at least a little attention.

The report states that the Defense Department is considering putting a base somewhere in the Western Sahara region from which it can patrol the whole area with drones. Perhaps not in Mali, perhaps somewhere in Niger, the purpose is to keep track of the bad guys in the whole region.

I drove from Morocco to Niamey in 1976, via Tamanrasset in Algeria and Agades in Niger. The political landscape is very different now, but I doubt whether the physical terrain has changed much. It’s not the sandy desert of the Beau Geste romantic novel, except in spots, it is just very rugged, very dry country, crossed by dry stream beds, punctuated by rocky outcrops. It’s a dream environment for assymetric warriors who know the turf intimately and can fight or blend into the background at a moment’s notice, whether they are on camels or in Land Rovers. Such forces can be highly mobile, as the Polisario forces showed in the early ’80’s when they were hitting Moroccan towns from the desert interior, and as our contemporary adversaries showed just a few days ago when they crossed, what was it, 800 miles?, to hit that refinery in Algeria.

I can see where our military would like better intelligence about where the enemy sits and where he is going, but establishing a fixed base in the area from which it can be collected, that’s sticking our neck out pretty far. First is the issue of how effective it will be, then we need to ask what it is likely to get us into in terms of further entanglement, and then there is the little issue of sufficient security for the base itself. I cannot conjure up answers to any of these questions, even during my most optimistic moments, that leave me with the sense that this is a good idea.

I conclude that shame should be upon me, or anybody else, who might favor getting further entangled in a military way in the Western Sahara. I know, telling that to the brass hats is like telling my dog not to chase squirrels. But that’s the way it is.

Carl Coon

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