Canadian foreign affairs minister John Baird has warned against Canadian military trainers being sent to Mali, saying that such a mission could turn into a military quagmire like Iraq and Afghanistan.
Baird is right to suspect that the conflict in Mali will come to resemble the situation in Afghanistan. Since Islamic militants retreated from their strongholds they have begun a predictable guerrilla campaign. Such tactics recently forced French soldiers to go house-to-house in Gao, a city in northern Mali that was attacked by Islamic militants on Sunday.
A recent mutiny, call for jihad, suicide attack, as well as accusations of abuses all put more pressure on the French, who plan to leave Mali next month in what they hope will be a better state than how they found it.
Although militants in Mali have withdrawn or been forced out of their previous strongholds this does not mean that the conflict in the region is close to being over. A recent NPR article highlighted the size of the Islamic militant force that could return to wreak havoc in northern Mali or Niger:
Given the weekend attack on Gao, are the Islamist militants vanquished? Probably not, suggests McClatchy reporter Alan Boswell. He finds "the strongest evidence yet that the quick advance by French troops against al Qaida-linked Islamist militants was less a military rout than an orderly and strategic withdrawal into terrain far more suitable for a gritty, drawn-out insurgency campaign."
"In other words, their retreat from northern Mali isn't game over, but game on."
Boswell describes how carefully militants appeared to pull out of towns they'd held: a convoy of vehicle drove out of the town of Diabaly one at a time, without headlights, over 12 hours. This way they weren't likely to attract much attention from French warplanes. Boswell suggests that in this manner, thousands of militants may have evaded French detection.
Last night Obama expressed a slightly different position on the situation in Mali than Baird, saying:
Today, the organization that attacked us on 9/11 is a shadow of its former self. Different al Qaeda affiliates and extremist groups have emerged – from the Arabian Peninsula to Africa. The threat these groups pose is evolving. But to meet this threat, we don't need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad, or occupy other nations. Instead, we will need to help countries like Yemen, Libya, and Somalia provide for their own security, and help allies who take the fight to terrorists, as we have in Mali.
Given that the situation in Mali could get increasingly more violent it will be interesting to see what form the "help" the president mentioned last night will take, especially since he rejected putting boots on the ground, a commitment that presumably does not preclude the use of drones.