On Friday, Feb. 8, a man wearing a military uniform motored up to a Malian army checkpoint in the ancient city of Gao, recently liberated from Islamic militants that had held the arid country’s expansive north since early 2012. The rider triggered an explosive belt, killing the bomber but merely wounding a Malian soldier standing nearby.
By the standards of suicide bombers, the Gao attack was unimpressive. But it was chilling nonetheless. It was the first suicide attack in the West African country since the beginning of the civil war last year, and an early blow in a nascent insurgency targeting Mali.
Last Friday’s desultory blast was also a reminder of a recent military lesson. Speedy, high-tech, coalition-based military interventions, the kind increasingly favored by the U.S. after more than a decade of open-ended occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, can begin neatly and end messily — if they really end at all.
Washington’s calculated support in Mali, including intelligence, drones, logistics and cash, enabled French, Malian and allied troops to quickly recapture northern territory from militant forces led by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, a.k.a. AQIM, the terrorist organization’s North African affiliate. A coalition victory in the main assault was a foregone conclusion. It’s the phase of the conflict after major combat that should worry U.S. officials. And that phase is beginning now.
Army Gen. Carter Ham, head of the U.S. Africa Command, put it best in mid-January during the early hours of the French-led campaign. Paris’ bombers struck militant forces as French commandos mobilized Malian troops and armored battalions raced to reinforce France’s African garrisons. Ham was apparently already thinking past the initial battles, to the possibility of a drawn-out insurgency. “The real question,” Ham said, “is now what?”
Now more than ever, America wants neat, short conflicts. There’s no appetite for drawn-out operations, to say nothing of large-scale troop deployments. But Mali is likely to underscore an unpleasant truth. Today’s conflicts are usually anything but tidy or brief.