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Until about a week ago, I couldn’t find Mali on a map—except that I knew to look in Africa. I knew that it was a poor nation. But I didn’t even know that it was previously known as French West Africa. I should have known more, but I just didn’t. We Americans are not very good at knowing stuff about Africa.  At least this American isn’t. And I’m not proud of that fact.

Now, suddenly, I’m learning that France is using fighter jets against a radical Islamic faction in Mali, and I know nothing about that, either. And as the news trickles out—particularly the news that the U.S. has been helping France with logistics, and that they’re asking for even more help—I’m starting to worry. Isn’t this how things started in Vietnam, when the U.S. got gradually more and more involved after a French military debacle in its former colony? Is there a new “domino theory” at work? Are we—and by “we” I mean U.S. foreign-policy decision-makers—operating on the premise that radical Islam, like communism, will spread from one country to another? [I’m old enough to remember newsreels that showed a scary red communist blob oozing across eastern Europe and Southeast Asia.]  In this view of the world, is Al Qaida the new Viet Cong? And, by the way, were the Cold War theories on which we based our military actions ever borne out in fact?

I listened to President Obama’s second inaugural speech and felt good when I heard him say that America doesn’t need to be in a perpetual state of war.  I hope he can stick to that conviction.

I know that I’m at the first stage of this news story—the one where I have very little information on which to form an opinion. I intend to upgrade that status. Right now, though, all I have are questions. But at this stage, questions seem more important than answers—especially at the decision-making level.   I just hope that events don’t overtake the president so quickly that he doesn’t have a chance to ask the questions that seem not to have been asked when the U.S. entangled itself in previous conflicts.


How much do you know about the situation in Mali?

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| 42 votes | Vote | Results

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    DaNang65, Azazello, snoopydawg, chimene

    Life's a dance you learn as you go; sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow.

    by gloriasb on Wed Jan 23, 2013 at 06:37:37 AM PST

  •  Interesting you should ask..... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    As the reports are coming in, and as a 'Nam vet, my first thoughts as to us transporting the French Troops into was instantly Vietnam.

    Though I don't see this as rising to that, but the possibilities of deeper involvement are there.

    And Thanks, which you won't hear any tebag questioning Hillary today apologizing, to same and their supporters for not only expanding the hatreds but the expansion of al Qaeda type international criminal terrorists groups with their policies and rubber stamping under the bush!

    Vets On FLOTUS and SLOTUS, "Best - Ever": "We haven't had this kind of visibility from the White House—ever." Joyce Raezer - Dec. 30, 2011

    by jimstaro on Wed Jan 23, 2013 at 06:44:44 AM PST

  •  The people of Mali don't want Al Qaeda there (5+ / 0-)

    the Vietnamese largely supported the Viet Cong and preferred self-rule to what they saw as a western puppet government in Saigon. The people of Mali are very happy that there is international intervention to drive the Islamic extremists out. Also the ground offensive there is already driving the Islamists back from territory they had captured and is showing every sign of being quickly successful. There is no Soviet empire to bakc up the Islamists either.

    In other words, no comparison. Not even close.

    •  North Mali is very different. (0+ / 0-)

      I am not sure if the "people" in the North are being oppressed or are part of the Islamist movement. In the South the people were looking for international involvement but I am not sure if you can make a blanket statement about the entire country.  There is also a segment of the population of the North that has wanted a break from the South and were working with Al Q. to do so.  It is a complicated situation.

  •  Why does everyone immediately say "The next vietna (7+ / 0-)


    North Vietnam was getting vast amounts of FREE military aid from the USSR and Maoist China. The Jihadis aren't getting any aid from any state, rogue or otherwise.

    Plus, the Mailian government, which is democratically elected, ASKED for French troops and the majority of the population is behind them.

    It's not vietnam at all.

  •  There certainly are surface similarities (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    lina, slothlax

    between France's involvement in Mali and it's attempt to retake the Indochinese colony it lost to the Japanese in WWII.

    Beneath the surface it's too early to tell.

    Bear in mind that when the French sent the Foreign Legion back to Indochina after WWII the French could hardly feed themselves, yet alone afford imperial expeditionism. Uncle Sugar bore 90% of the cost of the mission which culminated at Dien Bien Phu. France itself was surviving on the Marshall Plan.

    After the sham Geneva Convention of 1954 we took on direct responsibility for keeping Viet Nam out of the "Communist" side of our bipolar ledger. Today anyone to the left of, say, John Bolton, has a more sophisticated view of the Islamic-Western dichotomy.

    France was a U.S. sockpuppet then, hoping to reclaim overseas empire while we sought to contain what we thought was "Communism." What are France's goals today? What are ours?

    “Perhaps the most 'spiritual' thing any of us can do is simply to look through our own eyes, see with eyes of wholeness, and act with integrity and kindness.” Jon Kabat-Zinn

    by DaNang65 on Wed Jan 23, 2013 at 07:04:04 AM PST

    •  my goals are pretty straightforward (6+ / 0-)

      To see my family in Bamako not become captives of radical Islamist invaders.  No one is naive enough to think that France's intervention is entirely without some sense of self-interest, but they are doing the right thing here.  If the west thinks that it should sit back and watch passively while this atrocity happens, I assume it is because African lives are cheap.  

      •  largely agree (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        mali muso, lina, slothlax

        Frances self interest here is totally clear (to me at least, and most people here - that being central Europe), that is not having a hotbed of islamism in the place where actually quite a lot of immigrants to our countries come from, and where we are linked to by so many direct population links. I believe that Frances self interest and that of the people of Mali go quite along the same lines here. I follow this daily through the french and some scattered African press. what I wonder most is, now that France appears to have decisively stopped the islamists, what now? Saying no to "les barbus" in Bamako is one thing, but Mali cant be a french military protectorate from now on either, they need somehow to get their country going again, and that I fear is not anything where France or anyone from here can do much if it doesnt come from there. Or, say it this way, why did it need to come to this? It shouldnt have to. I suspect this intervention is qualitatively different from all the earlier French meddling - and much more difficult and dangerous - and unsustainable without a strong or renewed Mali.

        Have you seen the skull soldier photo? That was all the talk here yesterday.  

        and I would like to have an explanation for the islamists in the first place. West African Islam isnt traditionally wahhabi-like extremism. Not as far as I know. If it is all a question of external money, then why does Quatari money have such an effect and western money not? I cant get that congruent.  

        •  It's about armed men with nothing else to do (4+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          marsanges, mali muso, DaNang65, slothlax
          If it is all a question of external money, then why does Quatari money have such an effect and western money not? I cant get that congruent.  
          According to a Malian man I heard interviewed on the radio, Malians resent these foreign Islamists coming to their nation and telling them how to behave lie a good Islamic person. So I do not htink it is a matter of money being persuasive.

          I suspect the difference is that the fall of the Ghadaffi regime left thousands of former mercenaries with no jobs, nothing much to do, and stacks of powerful weapons. They moved on to ransack what they could, as in the way of unemployed mercenary companies throughout history.

        •  haven't seen that photo yet (4+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          marsanges, Quicklund, slothlax, Mariken

          can you send me a link?  

          Definitely there is a good rationale to involvement in terms of having an Al Qaeda stronghold right there in Europe's backyard.  Comparisons to Afghanistan have certainly been circulating, although I don't know if that's entirely accurate.  For one thing, the Malian population is certainly not sympathetic to their aims and has never shared their radical interpretation of Islam.  Even the Tuareg elements who were collaborating with them for the purposes of grabbing land seem to have realized that they've bitten off way more than they can chew (Tuaregs also not into sharia as a general rule) and have expressed interest in returning to the bargaining table and of joining up with the fight against AQIM.  I can tell you that most Malians in the south will view that prospect very cynically.  This is something like the 4th time there has been a "rebellion" and each time they've offered the Tuareg important posts in the government and military only to find them turning against the Malian government when they think they might have accumulated enough military power to be effective.  

          As for the presence of the Islamists, this is not a new thing.  When I lived in Mali some ten years ago, there were rumors of a shadowy network using the desert for trafficking in drugs (making money) as well as hostages (another income generating activity).  My take is that the Al Qaeda types have been trying to co-opt unhappiness and unrest between ethnic groups like the Tuareg and others in order to gain territory and influence.  The fall of Qaddafi and the influx of better arms and more trained men may have had a tipping point quality but it wasn't the cause.  

          •  here (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            mali muso


            it made a little splash - here in our press at least - of course, people latch on to something like this with their preexisting ideas, it is like a mirror.

            yet it is again us amongst ourselves. Actual voices of Mali tend not to get through into our press. I feel most starved of them.

            •  late responding but... (0+ / 0-)

              looks like there is a small item on this in the NYT blog.  It did not hit our news media, or if it did I missed it.  Probably because the US media is obsessed with more important issues like lipsync-gate or the latest honey-boo-boo whatsit.  Having now read the "behind-the-scenes" account of the photographer in the original French, I would say any reaction to it has been overblown.

              You're right that it is difficult to hear from the voices of Malians.  Easier if you can read French since there is no shortage of local Malian news, but little of it gets diffused into the outside, I suppose.

  •  Very different (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    The U.S. war in Vietnam was based on the 1950's desire to contain Communism and continued on and on because no U.S. President wanted to be known as the one who lost Vietnam to the Communists.

    Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is very different.

    Certainly, no U.S. Present in the current era wants to be knows as the one who loses any region to the Islamists, but a comparison to Vietnam is stretched.

  •  It's exactly like Vietnam (5+ / 0-)

    Except that there are zero American troops there, Western troops number less than 3000 and have only been there a week, the al-Qaida allies there have no popular support, and actually do represent a threat to the west, and the country in question, Mali, had a democratically elected government until the war started to go badly.

    No Americans, hardly any French, fighting a real threat with no popular support in a democratic country. My God, it's precisely like Vietnam. Time to storm the Selective Service office and burn the draft cards!

    The Bush Family: 0 for 4 in Wisconsin

    by Korkenzieher on Wed Jan 23, 2013 at 07:08:06 AM PST

  •  Spreading from one country to another... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Quicklund, slothlax


    There's something relaxing about being a low-information person. I oughta know, I choose that route about a lot of things myself.

    I did scuttle my own hoped-for career as a pilot back in the day by telling the Air Force ROTC program where they could stuff their commission (but ever so politely) when I woke up to a bit more information about what was happening in Vietnam, a few months after I had signed up for the serious, second half of ROTC.

    However, situations may differ. I'm not too sure about this islamic fear factor myself, but it just might be different.

    At least we should see if there's anything we can do about the spread of falling dictatorship weapon stores even if there's not really an islamic domino effect going on.

    Moderation in most things.

    by billmosby on Wed Jan 23, 2013 at 07:41:17 AM PST

  •  Answer: NO (7+ / 0-)

    If you'd like to educate yourself on the realities of the current situation, you might spend some time learning about the history of the country, the culture and the roots of the current conflict.  (Hint: it has to do with a radical outsider group invading the country, taking advantage of a power vacuum and threatening thousands of innocent civilians.)  I took a stab at trying to explain some of this context last year when the trouble started to snowball.  If you read that diary, keep in mind that since that time, the AQIM group has taken the definitive upper hand.  Indeed, recently the MNLA (Tuareg nationalist group) has indicated they would like to join the French, Malian and ECOWAS forces in trying to kick out their former Islamist allies.

    Had France not stepped in when it did last week, the country would have been taken over by these foreign Jihadists.  Don't be misled into thinking this is some kind of civil war or an internal matter that doesn't have ramifications for the entire world, including the Western world.

    I would recommend reading these articles for starters if you want an informed take by people who actually know the context.  Much of what is being reported in the English-speaking media is woefully misguided and sloppy, which probably lends itself to the incorrect comparisons to Vietnam, etc.  

    Behind Mali's conflict

    Making Sense of Mali

    France in Mali: the end of the fairytale

    Taking the fight to the desert

    •  Any chance we could get another diary (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      mali muso, Quicklund, marsanges

      about this? The one you wrote last year was excellent.

      just a little bit bored.

      by terrypinder on Wed Jan 23, 2013 at 07:56:01 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  thank you (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      mali muso

      I have been watching out for what you might have to say ever since this became front news now. my sense is that this is a situation that directly concerns anyone of us here up north of the Mediterranean, much more than any I/P or Iraq or Pakistani stituation, dont ask me why, I´d have difficulties to explain that- it´s a sense. I am most grateful for Hollande. At least somewhere in Europe there´s one who has his general senses left even if he may not really know what to do domestically.  

    •  What do you think of the "War Nerd" analysis? (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      mali muso

      I have always wondered about John Dolan's accuracy in writing about such things. It sounds like you'd be an authority.

      This is an article he posted a few days ago.

      You may not be able to change the world, but at least you can embarrass the guilty.
      - Jessica Mitford

      by Swampfoot on Wed Jan 23, 2013 at 08:38:48 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  thanks for the link (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        slothlax, Swampfoot, myboo

        I find his analysis relatively accurate and definitely it's written in accessible language (although some bits a little flippant for my tastes given that these events are impacting people I know and care about).  I think he does a good job particularly in the aspect of deconstructing the connection between what went down in Algeria (that op had already been planned way in advance of the French incursion into Mali) and the situation in Mali.  Also noting the duplicating and splintering of these different groups.  It's like a hydra and motivations are not easily boiled down to "nationalism" or other such quick short-hand.

        Where he's off is in his assumption that the "black" Africans in the northern zone are somehow new-comers or interlopers.  The Songhai and Fulani as well as the Bela and others have been there for time and memoriam.  Gao was the capital of the Songhai empire for goodness sake.  It's their city, never has belonged to the Tuareg (neither has Timbuktu for that matter).  So the idea that the separatists have any legitimacy in claiming that area is pretty questionable, imo.

        Still, an interesting read and more or less on the mark in many regards.  Thanks for sharing. :)

  •  the Mali situation has been ongoing for (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mali muso, marsanges, Quicklund, slothlax

    almost a year now.

    I strongly recommend you read this website and go through many of the posts going back through last year.

    I also strongly recommend that you ignore ALL American media pundits. They are all, almost universally, wrong.

    just a little bit bored.

    by terrypinder on Wed Jan 23, 2013 at 07:53:44 AM PST

  •  Nope (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    FG, mali muso

    The similarities between the two situations are endless ... Both are former French colonies,

  •  No (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    This is nothing like Vietnam for a whole variety of reasons, biggest being (in my eyes) the terrain.  This isn't an incredibly densely populated coastal nation, its a sparsely populated desert, so any military conflict there would never reach Vietnam levels.

    Beyond that, my understanding is that Islamist extremists fleeing Libya attached themselves to the internal conflict between the settled and nomadic populations of Mali on the side of the nomads.  This tipped the balance of power and swept in extremely conservative local governments by force that the central government has been battling since.  The French are not defending what they consider to be their own territory (as in Vietnam), they are helping a government that asked for help.  Cote d'Ivoire is not an exact comparison either, but I would think more along those lines than Vietnam.

    Of course I'm just taking news reports at face value.  There could be all kinds of nefarious things going on that I am not aware of.

    There is truth on all sides. The question is how much.

    by slothlax on Wed Jan 23, 2013 at 11:08:47 AM PST

  •  Thanks for the excellent info (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mali muso

    I just want to take a minute to say thank you to all of the commenters--so far--for the helpful links and the informed opinions. I plan to follow the links and get more educated about the situation in Mali.

    Life's a dance you learn as you go; sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow.

    by gloriasb on Wed Jan 23, 2013 at 12:50:41 PM PST

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