TSG IntelBrief: Mali Après la Guerre: Adieu to Nation-Building and Bonjour to Sanctuary Management
January 15, 2012

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As of mid-January 2013, French military aircraft and approximately 400 troops continue to engage Islamist insurgents in Mali. After seizing relative control of the northern half of the country in 2012, these insurgents were recently making threatening gains in the government-held southern region. While the international community is focused on the somewhat rapid but understandable escalation by a western military force into the long-troubled Sahel region — with legitimate concerns ranging from retaliation to quagmire — we might consider if we are witnessing a meaningful shift in terms of international armed crisis resolution.

Perhaps the most important strategic question we might ask is whether the era of nation-building — which despite periodic claims to the contrary has lasted since World War II up to the present — is finally giving way to what we have decided to call sanctuary management. For while we’ve long heard policymakers talk at length about denying extremists a sanctuary within which to plan and plot external attacks (the oft-stated reason why the United States is still in Afghanistan after more than eleven years), the phrase sanctuary denying has been used as the pretense for nation-building and the unintended (or unimagined) consequence: boots on the ground (a popular expression for an extended troop presence).

What we are suggesting is neither complex nor inherently high-risk. If France — and other nations — actually and consistently “commit to not committing,” to lance boils of chaos and extremism without immediately resorting to exhaustive surgeries, then perhaps sanctuary management can be both the goal and the tactic. France might not have solved the Malian crisis but they might have alleviated it (if only temporarily), and that is the point of sanctuary management. Let’s explore this idea further…

By sanctuary management, we are suggesting the 67-year old construct of crisis resolution — a cycle of slowly evolving instability; resolution; massive foreign intervention; political, economic, and infrastructure reconstruction; transfer to local sovereignty; and lasting foreign troop presence — has begun to give way to a new doctrine. Such a doctrine, one that represents the amorphous nature of modern conflict, would rest on a wholly new construct composed of relatively constant pressure from drones, limited air power, and/or ground troop operations to keep the designated threat at such a level as to create and maintain conditions that are inconsistent with (even ill-suited for) a meaningful external threat.

The key qualifiers of this new doctrine are constant and limited, with the former having been difficult to achieve by easily-distracted governments and the latter being something with which intervening militaries have long struggled. This history notwithstanding, modern militaries — and the governments they represent — need to become exceptionally comfortable with both of these elements, because the times, they are a’changing…and have been for years.

Again, what we are suggesting is that the goal of sanctuary management — a variation of which has been the reason for the expensive tactic of nation-building — should indeed be the tactic. Hence there is a key difference between sanctuary denial, which would logically involve such a sustained presence that it invariably morphs into nation-building, and sanctuary management, which means defining and then maintaining a level of menace with which the international community can live…but the target population (insurgents, for example) cannot.

In a way, the French intervention in Mali is a logical extension of the United States drone campaign in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere. It’s less a light footprint (meaning it still involves significant troop numbers) and more a realistic fingerprint. To be more precise, it is a strategy in which policymakers actually studied the cost/benefit equation of operations such as Iraq and Afghanistan — which lasted so much longer than originally planned that we still can’t judge the merit of their outcomes more than a decade later — and decided to address the threat instead of the overriding problem. Is such an approach perfect? Of course not; but it is nonetheless doable, achievable, and, of paramount importance, sustainable. The alternative is waiting until a sanctuary spills over its borders, and then going through the machinations of a conflict resolution system that depended on a rational state actor that less and less exists (and with fewer and fewer available resources).

The key to sanctuary management is the ability of intervening governments (or alliances) to avoid the attempt — even temptation — to address the root cause of the problem but rather seek to rapidly, systematically, and creatively mitigate its symptoms. It might sound harsh but the alternative, that of failed intervention and lingering occupation, is harsher still by every objective and subjective measure. In this age of increasing asymmetrical warfare, it makes no sense to commit traditional troops, for years and years, into an environment in which they are more a source of ignition than a fire extinguisher. From a purely crisis management point of view (putting aside holistic approaches that, frankly, no nation has been capable of implementing using current approaches), it might make sense to manage the crisis rather than expensively and impossibly struggle, often in vain, to solve it.

In sum, the sanctuary management approach strives to do three things:

▪ Closely monitor chaotic regions
▪ Strike where and when needed to manage a potential sanctuary, and
▪ Resist the urge to nation-build in situations where the notion of nation is increasingly outdated.

Such an approach might be more honest in that the tactic is the goal; and more effective, in that it will manage tensions at a sustainable level for external actors while giving latitude for local forces to solve their own problems.

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By doing less, intervening governments can accomplish more. It’s time for a change.

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