Illustration by Dylan C. Lathrop
Illustration by Dylan C. Lathrop

In driving al-Qaeda and other extremists from Mali’s towns, the French military has restored a semblance of order. But the underlying problems that led to the country’s meltdown persist, leaving its government and its allies in peril.

Most of the extremists are at large, waiting in the shadows for the departure of the French, who have delegated long-term security to African forces. The Economic Community of West African States has pledged 8,000 troops, not nearly enough to secure an area the size of Texas. That means safeguarding far-flung provinces will be left largely to Mali’s own government. Today, as a year ago, incompetence plagues the security forces, corruption the civil administration.

U.S. efforts to help the Malians secure their national territory failed spectacularly the first time. Until March 2012, when a cataclysmic military coup caused the State Department to suspend all assistance, the U.S. concentrated its aid on Mali’s economic and social development, on the theory that extremism could best be defeated by alleviating poverty. In 2011, the U.S. spent $221 million on irrigation, transportation, education, health and other development initiatives. It spent less than $4 million for security programs. Much of that sum, moreover, went to development projects that purported to curb extremism.

‘Modest’ Aid

The 2011 aid budget for Mali included just $350,000 for training and educating military officers at U.S. institutions. It gave the shoddily equipped Malian army only $200,000 to acquire U.S. military hardware. Amanda Dory, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs, conceded recently that the “relatively modest quantities” of U.S. military aid to Mali weren’t “commensurate with the threat.”

While the Defense Department has recognized the problem, comparable statements haven’t emerged from the State Department, which holds most of the aid purse strings. Some State officials concur with development experts who think impoverishment of developing-world security forces is good policy. In their opinion, these militaries do little with their power but violate human rights and overthrow civilian governments.

Yet the poverty of the Malian military didn’t prevent a military coup. It did prevent effective resistance to the extremist onslaught. Years of large U.S. expenditures on Mali’s development, meanwhile, did little to undermine the appeal of extremism. Malian rebels gained strength in late 2011 and early 2012, enabling them to mount the offensive that sparked the coup.

Had security assistance been robust, the U.S. military might have inculcated in Mali’s officer corps principles of professionalism, such as discipline and respect for civilian authority, that would have averted the coup. The U.S. has done this with the armed forces of Botswana, Colombia, Senegal, South Korea and Tunisia, among others.

The coup arose from a confrontation between disgruntled soldiers and the defense minister at which rocks were thrown and warning shots were fired. The senior officers could have defused the situation by reining in junior officers and reprimanding those who were insubordinate, as leaders steeped in U.S. military professionalism would have done. Instead, the generals and colonels fled, permitting the rabble-rousing Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo to lead unruly soldiers in capturing the presidential palace.

Sanogo wouldn’t have even been present that day had Mali’s military absorbed the meritocracy preached by the U.S. military. During his training, Sanogo had flunked several exams, yet he was allowed to continue on the officer track. When his father saw him on national television during the coup, he exclaimed to his wife, “Come see what your imbecile son is doing!” The military compounded its error of making Sanogo an officer by sending him to the U.S. for training, squandering a valuable slot that should have been reserved for one of the brightest officers.

Improving Governance

The coup might also have been avoided had the U.S. invested more than a paltry $114,000 a year in improving governance in Mali. The corruption and inefficiency of President Amadou Toumani Toure’s administration generated widespread disgust with the government and disillusionment with democracy, culminating in the military’s takeover. The coup’s numerous supporters blamed the government for resource shortfalls that led to military defeats, such as a January 2012 attack in which rebels slaughtered almost 100 soldiers and their dependents after the defenders ran out of ammunition.

The U.S. miserliness on this front accorded with the theory, popularized by Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, that bad governance isn’t a leading cause of national poverty. Sachs and like-minded U.S. officials instead blame geographic and environmental disadvantages and think aid should be concentrated on mitigating them.

The U.S. government will probably resume aid to Mali after national elections scheduled for July. The new aid package ought to include large sums for security and governance, with emphasis on training and education to develop professional military officers, police chiefs and civil servants. In the meantime, large numbers of foreign advisers are required. Only such a reapportionment of assistance can prevent al-Qaeda from using Mali as a staging ground for further attacks on Americans in Libya or Algeria, or in the U.S.

(Mark Moyar, an independent national security consultant and author, is writing a book on U.S. foreign assistance. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Mark Moyar at info@markmoyar.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Lisa Beyer at lbeyer3@bloomberg.net.