The U.S. donated tens of millions of dollars to Mali over the last decade, and countless hours of troop training to try to create a stable nation.
The Washington Post's Walter Pincus outlines the laundry list of targeted strategies in the North African country over the last ten years, which ultimately culminated in a coup last March and ongoing insurgent conflict with no clear end in sight for the warring French.
It leaves the sponsors of these costly endeavors—the American taxpayer—with a valid question: Was it worth it? Experts on the subject say there is a hidden return-on-investment.
"The ultimate goal of bringing up security forces in other countries is so they can fight so we don't have to," says Marine Col. Francis Donovan. The 27-year veteran commands the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which just returned to the United States after a nine-month tour of the Mediterranean, Africa, the Middle East, the Arabian Gulf and southwest Asia.
Its duties during the tour included conducting training missions in several African countries, such as Morocco.
He gave the example of four Marines he dispatched to Uganda for three months, tasked with teaching the local army how to use hand-launched Raven surveillance drones to assist in supporting the new fragile Somali government. The Marines were also able to impart land navigation and other combat operations.
"At the end of three months, they do a graduation exercise, and they go to Somalia. Our guys come home," he says.
The State Department now classifies Somalia as one of the greatest success stories on the continent.
Months later, the U.S. government cut off support for these Ugandan troops after reports they had teamed up with rebels from M23, the violent group that incited civil war in eastern Congo. That conflict is responsible for more deaths than any other in Africa, the State Department says.
"You can have a specific impact and it'll pay off," says Donovan. "And selfishly for a MEU commander, anytime I can get someone ashore, we're learning about that environment. So if we have to respond to Uganda or respond to Djibouti, or respond to Tanzania or Rwanda or the places we went, we know about it."
"If it's preparation for the environment for our return, for crisis response, it makes sense," he says.
But this training can only go so far. If these troops don't have an infrastructure that provides support and logistics, it can easily devolve into a situation like what the French currently face in Mali, says J. Peter Pham, an Africa expert with the Atlantic Council and advisor to U.S. Africa Command.
"The military is only as good as the government and the people behind it," Pham says. "In Mali, you had a corrupt government."
Pham points out that the U.S. aimed much of its training efforts in Mali to special forces, who fought and died during the March 2012 coup d'etat while protecting the country's president.
"In that kind of situation, all the training in the world would have done no good," he says. "It's the same lesson we learned – or should have learned in Afghanistan and elsewhere: You cannot have an effective military counterinsurgency strategy without legitimacy."
This will plague current French and European efforts to drive Islamic extremists out of Mali if they don't begin planning constitutional order in the country.
"Who's going to sign up to fight and die for an illegitimate regime?" says Pham.
Often, Marines like those under Donovan's command have more frontline access to these fighters than CIA operators or diplomats, Pham says. He predicted Mali or Mauritania would collapse almost exactly a year before the Mali coup, based off of what was coming out of Libya. U.S. intelligence and diplomacy could have been better prepared following the resources dedicated to Mali in the last decade, he says.
"It's a broad brush to say the aid went down the drain. No it didn't," he says. "By in large, it was directed to a specific goal the U.S. was interested in and still is interested in: To prevent terrorists."
Tuareg clans in northern Mali started the most recent rebellion after the government repeatedly breached peace contracts it created. Yet Mali had been considered a poster child for American efforts to strengthen African democracies, says Pham, even as its government's transparency is in severe need of an upgrade. A Post study rates Mali's government 105th out of 174.
"It's never going to be a success if you engage in wishful thinking and political correctness," he adds. "We have to define our objectives. They haven't ever really been defined, nor have the French defined their objectives now."
"Just because you held elections doesn't mean you have a working constitutional democracy," he says.