‘Leading from behind’ may be inelegant phrasing, but as policy it makes good sense

In the rough and hazy way of such things, events in the African country of Mali appears to be working out reasonably well. French troops – including Foreign Legion paratroopers – have driven Islamist militants out of the storied trading center of Timbuktu and were welcomed by residents with cries of “Merci!” and “Vive la France!” With that, the influence of a potentially troublesome al-Qaida ally has been greatly diminished, perhaps for some time to come.

Moreover, that the French accomplished this with U.S. intelligence assistance and logistical support – but no Americans in combat or on the ground – highlights the wisdom of an emerging U.S. policy toward international interventions. For while “leading from behind” lacks Churchillian resonance, it more than makes up for that in practicality and common sense.

The plan is for the French to be replaced by an force of more than 8,000 called the AFISMA – for African-led International Support Mission to Mali – made up of troops from 20 African nations. The French have been clear that while they will do what they can to help with the transition to African control, they have no intention of getting bogged down in a long-term war.

More to the point, neither does the United States. And from a strictly American point of view that is the more interesting aspect of this affair.

The situation in Mali is a mess. It began with a 2012 coup that then triggered the Islamist takeover of the country’s northern provinces. That, too, was in part facilitated by the return to Mali of tribesman who had been under arms in the service of the late Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

The Islamists terrorized the local population, which was accustomed to a moderate form of Islam that accommodated the traditional dress and customs of sub-Saharan Africa. Music of all kinds was banned, as was any contact between the sexes – even among many family members. Women were routinely beaten for dress infractions.

The militants also declared themselves affiliated with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (roughly meaning Northwest Africa.) The claimed al-Qaida tie, of course, got American attention, although the connection seems as much aspirational as real. In fact many of the would-be jihadists are said to be little more than criminals and opportunists. One of the leaders of the attack on the Algerian gas facility was reportedly nicknamed Marlboro after his prominent role in a cigarette-smuggling operation.

Nonetheless, the troublemaking potential of such a group has to be treated seriously. And the Obama administration has done so. It does not follow, however, that the U.S. should itself intervene militarily.

Far better to leave that to the French. As the former colonial rulers of the area, they have a linguistic bond, know both the area and the people and, it could be argued, bear some responsibility for region’s chaotic circumstance.

Contrast that to the United States’ situation. Writing in Slate, Fred Kaplan put it this way: “We don’t know the territory, we don’t know the players, we don’t know who’s worth backing, and who’s not. There are others who do, and they happen to have to have a bigger stake in the conflict.”

Presumably recognizing both the danger of ignoring any al-Qaida connection and the risk of getting tangled up in an African fight beyond its ken, the Obama team opted instead to provide a supporting role and offer mid-air refueling, logistical assistance, troop transport and intelligence support, but to let the French take the lead on the ground.

If that is to be disparaged as “leading from behind,” so be it. It could just as readily be called smart.