Mali, the Way of the Knife, and Working "By, With, and Through" Others

By Robert Chesney
Wednesday, May 1, 2013, 7:04 PM

While we are on the subject of Mark Mazzetti’s The Way of the Knife, and for that matter while we are speaking of Mali, check out this Washington Post report on U.S. boots being on the ground in Mali after all.

It was already clear, of course, that Mali nicely illustrated both a key concern at the heart of the Shadow War/Way of the Knife model and one particularly-attractive approach to addressing that concern.   Let me explain:

The US has a strong interest in taking action to suppress groups that have attacked Americans.  And if such a group has a safe haven from which to operate thanks to another group or a government, the US has a strong interest in ending that safe haven (see Afghanistan and the Afghan Taliban, fall 2001).  By extension, the US has at least some interest in preventing such safe havens from emerging.  By definition, of course, this introduces an element of speculation about what might happen in the future, and that in turn might both tamp down the degree of US interest and the lengths to which the US might be willing or able to go in acting on its interest.

It seems to me that a central plank of US counterterrorism strategy today involves that last category. That is, it is central to US policy to prevent the emergence of safe-havens in places like Mali, Somalia, and Syria.  And quite rightly so.  But difficulties emerge in operationalizing that aim.  Pursuing this interest runs the risk of pulling the US into conflicts all over the globe, at potentially great cost in terms of resources, domestic political consensus, diplomatic support, creating new enemies, etc.  For all of those reasons, the shadow war model—the away-from-the-headlines set of instruments depicted so well in David Sanger’s Confront and Conceal, and the tip-of-the-spear elements of that model so aptly captured by Mark Mazzetti’s phrase “the Way of the Knife”—is especially attractive as a mode of response to the incipient safe-haven problem.

Bearing all this in mind, what to make of the latest news out of Mali?  There are two distinct elements in the Post story, both illustrative of the Shadow War/Way of the Knife model and its relevance to the incipient safe-haven issue.

First, the article describes an officially-acknowledged deployment of “about 10 U.S. military personnel” who are now on the ground in Mali “to provide ‘liaison support’ to French and African troops.”  This contradicts repeated assertions that we would not put boots on the ground in Mali (as catalogued in the article), and it raises a set of interesting War Powers Resolution questions (Does the deployment constitute the introduction of forces into hostilities, thereby triggering both reporting and 60-day clock requirements? Does it at least amount to deployment of forces equipped for combat, triggering just the reporting requirement?).  More significantly, though, it makes a bit more obvious what was already rather apparent:  we are devoting considerable resources (including substantial in-theater air support in the form of ISR) to enable France, Chad, and others to take combat actions to suppress the extremist groups that sought to control at least part of Mali.  This strategy of working “by-with-and-through” allies is a central feature of the Shadow War model in general.  It will not always be an option, of course, but you can bet we’ll use it when we can.

Second, the article speculates about the possibility of a Special Operations presence on the ground in Mali, with a direct-action (use of lethal force) mission.  In support, it quotes Rep. John Kline (R.-Minn.) asserting during a recent hearing that there was a risk that French and US special operations forces on the ground in Mali might accidentally end up “shooting each other” if there is not good coordination between them.  This of course is no proof that JSOC or other parts of the SOF community are in fact on the ground in Mali in a direct-action role.  But this would certainly run with the grain of the Way of the Knife, drawing attention to important legal questions (some mentioned by Jack in his earlier post reviewing Mark's book) regarding (i) the degree of Congressional oversight that occurs in connection with JSOC operations, (ii) the extent to which any such operations were justified internally as falling under the 2001 AUMF or Article II authority, and (iii) the degree of public accountability we should want and have regarding such activities (or at least regarding the legal theories that undergird them).