The ‘War on Terror’ has been the defining feature of US foreign policy in the past decade. Since 2001, under its banner, there have been the invasions of two states, Afghanistan and Iraq, huge loss of life, ethically debated projects such as drone strikes and Guantanamo, and the death of the most wanted terrorist on the planet.  It has been a mixed bag in terms of success record with there being positives and negatives to draw from this experience. Yet now, some see a new front in this ‘war’ emerging- this time located around Mali and the Maghreb. Initial unease at a rebellion and coup in the northern region of Mali by a Tuareg nationalist movement and an Islamist group, Ansar Dine, in January of 2012, was escalated by the hijacking of the rebellion by more Islamist factions by the end of the summer, including the Islamist group Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Image courtesy of Maghrebia, © 2011, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Maghrebia, © 2011, some rights reserved.

Due to a lack of attention by Western media for much of 2012, the eruption of violence and the decision to send troops to a place most saw as famously inaccessible- a place as remote as Timbuktu- has caused some surprise. By the turn of the New Year, French troops were being deployed. Since January, France’s commitment has been joined by the UK (roughly 330 troops, although the UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has said that these will play a supporting, rather than combat role[1]), the African Union, and to a small degree, the USA. The initial driving out of Islamist forces by the French has been successfully and swiftly completed, yet many fear the situation developing into Afghanistan Part II, with a ‘war of shadows’ emerging. The question now, much as it was during the intervention in Libya in 2011, is why is the USA taking an apparent back seat in the region? Some may see this statement as a large exaggeration of the truth: the USA was indeed vital in the efforts in Libya, and has Special Forces placed across the region with a new base for operations being setup in Mali’s neighbour, Niger.[2] Yet the fact remains that France has played the driving force on both occasions, and the USA has been slow to follow, almost appearing reluctant at times. Is there a reason for this?

One response would be to say that it was inevitable that France, with its long colonial history in the region, would feel the need to interject before anyone else did. With its large migrant community of Malians at home, France claims that this connection threatens France- or will do- directly, as mentioned in a speech by PM Jean-Marc Ayrault. Geographically it is clear that France is far closer to Mali than the USA are to Pakistan, yet the USA’s pursuit of counter-terrorist drone strikes there is a clear sign of how great a threat the US deems this region to be, despite it being on the other side of the world. From an American point of view, if France has gone in and disrupted the militants there, why would you join in when someone else is willing to do the job for you?

Another line of reasoning focuses on Obama turning towards the Pacific for his second term. With the US pulling out of Afghanistan next year after an exhausting decade, and the growing power of China, there could be something to this logic. More than that, in a speech President Obama gave back in November[3], the top-priority for the USA was indeed its back yard: the Asia-Pacific. There is sense to this being a top-priority; with China’s re-emergence as a great power, its increased naval presence in the form of its new aircraft carriers, and the persistent and increasingly capable North Korea (regarding its missile program), it appears an obvious direction to look. Yet a consequence of this is that the USA will, and perhaps already has turned its back on troubles in North Africa. This does not mean it will be blind to developments, nor stop it from dipping its toes into monitoring these crises, but it seems unwilling to directly send troops and commit again in this ‘War on Terror’ to the level it once did.

After all, how great is the threat posed by these crises in remote African countries? The group ‘Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’, while sharing the Al Qaeda brand, is very different from the international terror organisation which lends it its name. This jihadist group is certainly dangerous and intent on subduing northern Mali under Sharia Law, yet internationally, it has never attacked outside of Algeria and Mali, and tends to focus on profitable kidnapping, so perhaps the French fears are a little overstated.

We do not know how events in Mali will pan out. There are fears that it’ll become France’s Afghanistan and that history will repeat itself. Maybe the USA will be dragged into it. For the moment though, this new chapter of the War on Terror appears to have left out its main actor who seems to have turned its back and shifted its focus to more pressing issues. Indeed without the US, will this chapter even be called part of the War on Terror, or simply the return of an old colonial influence to the region?



[1] William Hague, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-21285012

[2] J Crawford & C Lawrence, ‘U.S. to establish military presence next to Mali’, http://security.blogs.cnn.com/2013/01/29/u-s-to-establish-military-presence-next-to-mali/

[3] President B Obama, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-15715446