Georgie Anne Geyer

We Could Learn a Few Things in North Africa

WASHINGTON -- While never abandoning the possibility that I'm the one who is peculiar, I find myself considering whether the questions being asked on television about events in Mali and northwestern Africa are not, in fact, themselves notably peculiar.

"Why did we let the French get ahead of us? Why didn't we just go out there in the desert and clean it up?" one anchor actually asked. "It's been six hours since the attack," another put forward, referring to the Jan. 16 attack by Islamic radicals on Algeria's In Amenas gas facility. "Why aren't we getting information on those killed?"

If I had a stupid question to ask about this foreign policy issue that didn't even exist six months ago, I'd ask why these attackers feel the need to give themselves such names as "The Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat," or the "Signed in Blood Battalion" or the "Signatories for Blood"?

But first, the French question.

What we essentially have is a huge opening for Islamic radicals -- or gangsters, or smugglers, or Algerian killers or Tuareg tribesmen -- of various beliefs, or nonbeliefs, or ethnic backgrounds. Many are men out of the 1980s Afghan war experience, using the central state of Mali as a new center for radical subversion in western Africa.

The battle formation is more like a 4-year-old's toy box dumped out on the kitchen floor than, say, Napoleon's or Montgomery's military plans -- but not much less lethal.

It was after Libya's Moammar Gadhafi fell two years ago that Mali became the target of rebels in the Maghreb. Tuareg tribesmen (in earlier times, the famous "bluemen" because of the blue scarves the men wore) who had served Gadhafi militarily carried Libya's advanced weapons down to northern Mali. Along with them came the radical Salafist Islamists from Algeria. Soon they attacked Mali alone, until other groups, notably under the old one-eyed bandit chief Moktar Belmoktar, known variedly as "The Prince" or the "Marlboro Man," joined them with his and other men.

Now, it is very difficult for foreigners to see which group is which, which is allied with al-Qaida or which is simply a criminal gang. After destroying some of the rare historic gems (Sufi mosques and monuments) of the famous Timbuktu, the radicals are now trying to hide among the people, who hate them.

When the French military arrived in Bamako, the capital of Mali -- after only half a day, compared to our slowness in Benghazi -- it was to blunt the Islamist offensive, to secure the capital and to prepare the way for the long-planned African force that will assist the Malian army. And what exactly is wrong with that?

Actually, as The Washington Post reported from Paris, the French are especially capable of working militarily in its former African colonies: "France ... was uniquely equipped to intervene instantaneously in Mali. ... The French military has built up experience in African affairs with about 5,000 troops, as well as arms, vehicles and warplanes, prepositioned and ready to go."

France has asked the U.S. to send surveillance equipment, drones, satellites and sophisticated eavesdropping systems to collect intelligence in support of French strikes against insurgents, plus aircraft to help refuel French fighters. No ground troops. Fine.

Why do those in America, who seem to be itching for the U.S. to get into Syria or Yemen or (now) Mali before we have even managed to leave Afghanistan with our pants on, not appreciate what the French are doing and doing so very well?

Second, the question of getting news from the In Amenas gas facility on the Algeria/Libya border.

The anchorman simply showed how little he knew about Africa. There are only the Sahara desert and a few other little "discomforts" between In Amenas and even Algiers, much less European cities. Lines were cut, workers were being murdered in the plant, the Algerian rebels had the most advanced weapons in the world. No wonder there was no immediate news!

Washington and London were complaining that the Algerians did not clue them in to their liberating attacks. But the Algerians moved fast, actually within hours, and took responsibility for everything. In the end, with at least 80 dead, the Algerians had nevertheless won, and the freed hostages could not have praised their work more highly.

Me? I would send them a couple of big, BIG trophies and invite them to the Kentucky Derby.

Finally, my admittedly sarcastic comment on their names. One can only think that any group that calls itself "bloody" this and "bloody" that, or something like "Killers for Peace," has some personal problems. Ditto when a wizened, ugly little guy with a rifle almost as big as he is calls himself "The Prince."

But in the world we live in, there just aren't enough psychiatrists for all these royal nuts. So for now I'm afraid the message for clueless news anchors is that the French way and the Algerian way are the way to go.

More like Georgie Anne Geyer