WASHINGTON: French forces have made great strides driving al-Qaeda-linked insurgents out of Mali’s major cities, said the Pentagon’s top counterterrorism official, Michael Sheehan. But any long-term solution requires local forces in the lead — not Westerners. And those recent successes in Yemen and Somalia provide a model for Mali — and for Afghanistan after 2014.
Sheehan, the assistant Secretary of Defense for special perations and low-intensity conflict (ASD SOLIC) spoke to scholars, industry officials, and military officers from two dozen countries this afternoon at the National Defense Industrial Association‘s annual SOLIC conference. Across the Maghreb and down to Nigeria, “an inverted L,” he said, “that area in North Africa is becoming awash with different al-Qaeda groups and affiliates.”
Retaking the riverside cities of Timbuktu and Gao in northern Mali is a “major and important success the French have achieved over the last few days,” said Sheehan. But it may not last unless local forces take over, he argued. “That will be a short term success,” he warned. “It’ll take a while to get in there and root out those cells and operatives” that have fled into the countryside.
“The French know that,” Sheehan said, “[so] over time, the French will try to turn that back over” to local forces: first to Mali’s neighboring nations, who are organizing a UN-authorized peacekeeping under the banner of ECOWAS, the Nigerian-dominated Economic Community Of West African States — “that’s going to require a lot of support” from the West, Sheehan acknowledged — and ultimately to the Malians themselves.
American support is complicated by a legal ban on direct contacts with the Malian military since it staged a coup in March, overthrowing the democratically-elected government and destabilizing the country enough to permit the Islamist advance. “Because of the coup, we cannot have relations,” Sheehan said — but the European Union has signed up to assist the Malian army.
Ultimately, “we would like to see in Mali — like we saw in Somalia; like we saw in Yemen — local forces take the lead,” Sheehan said. “That is the preferred situation everywhere, including in Afghanistan.”
Sheehan cited Yemen and Somalia as success stories that exemplify the administration’s January 2012 strategy of “innovative, low-cost, and small footprint approaches” to reducing [if not eliminating] insecurity with a minimal commitment of US forces. “In Somalia and Yemen, in both of those places, using these small footprint approaches, we’ve had great success,” he said, “[which show] some of the components of how our strategy might work in the months and years ahead.”
“A year ago in Yemen, al-Qaeda had taken over vast swathes of territory,” Sheehan said, threatening to topple the Yemeni state and create a sanctuary for terrorist operations much like Afghanistan before 9/11. But with US support — including, although Sheehan did not mention it explicitly, numerous drone strikes — the Yemeni regular forces and irregular militias have “turned the corner” in a country where the al-Qaeda presence extends two decades.
“The same thing in Somalia,” he went on, where the central government collapsed in the early 1990s. African armies — Ethiopian, Kenyan, and Ugandan — have pushed the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabab “out of major cities [and] into the hinterland of Somalia,” he said.
Islamic militants remain a formidable and persistent presence in both Arabia and East Africa, as they have been for a generation. (Indeed, Osama bin Laden’s father was Yemeni). But they are no longer in striking distance of overthrowing a nation-state or carving out a sub-national region as a sanctuary. That’s what the US aspires to replicate in Mali.
And that’s the objective in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which remains the hub of the global threat. “Without a doubt, still, the primary area of concern for me, — it has been since 1996 when I first start dealing with this — is that mountainous border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan,” said Sheehan. “They’ve taken a beating over the last ten years,” he said, but even after the death of Bin Laden, “that is the area where the leadership resides.”
Keeping pressure on al-Qaeda on all these fronts, Sheehan emphasized, is essential for the security of the American homeland, as tenuous as the link may seem to some a decade after 9/11. The comic-opera quality of failed al-Qaeda plots in recent years — the underwear bomber, the shoe bomber, the Times Square bomb that didn’t go off — is the result of a terrorist organization having a much harder time recruiting, training, and moving competent operatives around the world.
“It’s more than luck,” he said. “Because we’ve put them under pressure around the world, because it’s more difficult for them to train and deploy operatives, they make more mistakes.”
Edited 4:35 pm