As French troops push back Islamist militants in Mali, the U.S. is ferrying more French fighters into the African nation aboard C-17 transport planes. The violence in Mali comes at a time of spirited debate about how and when Washington should intervene in distant conflicts. While the U.S. draws down a decade-long war in Afghanistan, the Obama administration is also formalizing rules about drone strikes and “targeted killings” elsewhere. We explore how new lethal tools and new economic constraints are influencing old debates about intervening abroad.


  • Jennifer Cooke Director, Africa Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies
  • Karen DeYoung Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, The Washington Post


  • 13:06:41

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast the director of an Academy Award nominated film about a secretive Israeli security service. But first, a regional conflict in Africa has drawn an international response.

  • 13:07:12

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrench troops are helping the West African nation of Mali push back against Islamists militants associated with al Qaida and a multi-national force of African troops is gearing up. The U.S. is providing logistical assistance rather than boots on the ground but a conflict like Mali is something of a test case.

  • 13:07:29

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIAs the U.S. draws down a decade long war in Afghanistan, Washington is in the midst of debate over how and when the U.S. should intervene in distant conflicts. At the same time the Obama Administration is formalizing rules around its controversial program of drone strikes and targeted killings elsewhere.

  • 13:07:50

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us in studio to discuss this is Karen DeYoung. She is a senior diplomatic correspondent with "The Washington Post." Karen, always a pleasure.

  • 13:07:58

    MS. KAREN DEYOUNGThank you.

  • 13:07:59

    NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Jennifer, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:08:08


  • 13:08:09

    NNAMDIKaren DeYoung, President Obama did not address foreign policy very extensively in his inauguration speech on Monday but you see what he did say as important. Why?

  • 13:08:21

    DEYOUNGI think he kind of doubled down on his insistence that talking to people as opposed to necessarily fighting with them as a first resort is not naive as he put it but an act of courage. And again, as he did with many things in that speech, he took off against charges that had made during the campaign that his foreign policy was naive, that he was trying to settle things with governments like Iran where there simply was no talking to do.

  • 13:08:57

    DEYOUNGAnd so he kind of reinforced his desire to do that and also his desire to have partnerships around the world, to go at problems like Mali and Libya, excuse me, and other places in partnership with U.S. allies rather than the United States unilaterally taking the lead.

  • 13:09:21

    NNAMDIJennifer, the U.S. faces enormous diplomatic and security challenges around the world. Iran and North Korea but also regional conflicts, the fighting in Mali, kidnappings in Algeria linked to al Qaida. How is the administration, and this question is for both of you, but you first Jennifer. How is the administration is thinking about these kinds of threats going forward?

  • 13:09:41

    COOKEWell, I think in the Mali case and Africa in more generally the great preferences for African forces in the first instance to take the lead in combating the security challenges. In the U.S. Africa command its standup really emphasized the idea of building African security forces capacities to deal with these threats on their own.

  • 13:10:05

    COOKEBut as we've seen, some of these threats including right now the Islamists takeover of northern Mali, the attacks in Algeria, often exceed the capacity, the current capacity of African forces. And then that puts the U.S. in the dilemma of how directly should we intervene and some of these conflicts in which U.S. interests are not immediately at stake but which have a perspective threat for U.S. interests as in Mali.

  • 13:10:32

    NNAMDI800-433-8850's the number to call if you'd like to participate in this conversation. What do you think of the U.S. policy of using drone strikes to kill suspected terrorists abroad? How should the U.S. intervene in conflicts such as the one we're discussing in Mali, right now? 800-433-8850 or you can send email to

  • 13:10:54

    NNAMDIKaren, there are also differences of opinion, it would appear, between the White House or among the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon as to how and when we should respond to regional conflicts. Can you talk a little bit about that?

  • 13:11:07

    DEYOUNGWell, I think one of the things that the White House has been trying to do over the past year or so is put some rules in place for this. and this is an effort that's been led by John Brennan, the new nominee for director of the CIA, who for the past four years has been the president's national security advisor on counterterrorism.

  • 13:11:29

    DEYOUNGAnd particularly in the counterterrorism field I think there have been these differences. The question is, to what extent we should rely on targeted killings with drones and other kinds of aircraft and who should do it? How we decide who should be on the list of targets? What the rules should be in order to embark on this kind of strategy in a particular place and whether it should be the military or the CIA?

  • 13:12:00

    DEYOUNGObviously, the military has done it in war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq. The CIA almost exclusively has been, well, exclusively has been in charge of drone strikes in Pakistan, which is the place where there have been, by far, the most strikes. There are many, I think John Brennan included, who thinks that this not, this is not over the long term a role that we want the CIA to continue with.

  • 13:12:26

    DEYOUNGYou'll remember that the whole question of CIA performing what were then called assassinations was outlawed in the 1970s and there are people who argue that this, in fact, is a return to that strategy. So you have that level of argument.

  • 13:12:43

    DEYOUNGYou have a level of argument about whether the military should be engaged in the kind of development work that increasingly they've been involved in Africa and in other places or whether that's something that really should just be left to the State Department. So there are lots of levels of disagreement I think on how to precede.

  • 13:13:04

    NNAMDILet's talk about drones and targeted killings for a second because the administration is in the process of creating a detailed counterterrorism manual to establish rules for targeted killings abroad. You and colleagues at "The Post" have been writing on this subject for quite a while. This playbook would institutionalize the practice, tell us about this manual?

  • 13:13:23

    DEYOUNGWell, I think to some extent it already is institutionalized. What they're trying to do is come up with rules and I think this started as a way, as I said before, to kind of separate what intelligence gathers and the CIA do and what so-called kinetic actors like the military do in terms of strikes, weapons strikes.

  • 13:13:46

    DEYOUNGAnd it was a way supposedly to set out what the rules were, what legal authorities the administration believes it is operating under that makes it legal for them to do this. I think it gained momentum during the presidential campaign because the administration really wanted to set some of this stuff in stone so that a new administration couldn't come in and do what it wanted with it.

  • 13:14:15

    DEYOUNGThere have always been fears that other countries would acquire this technology and that the United States, while not being able to control the way others use it, would at least be in a better position to argue about the way others used it if they set up some rules. So, again, to decide which agency should do what, to decided what the legal boundaries were for it. To somehow make a case in the international community that they were doing this the right way.

  • 13:14:49

    NNAMDIWhen you talk about which agency should be included or excluded and you mentioned the distinction between how and where the military uses drone strikes and the CIA, is there a major exemption in these rules, in this document laid out for the CIA?

  • 13:15:05

    DEYOUNGWell, we, as we wrote last week the campaign in Pakistan, which has been operated solely by the CIA, I think has gotten a pass on this desire to move this back into only the province of the military. For example, in a place like Yemen where you have both the CIA and the military operating together.

  • 13:15:27

    NNAMDIBut the CIA is not officially allowed to carry out assassinations so what are we talking about here?

  • 13:15:33

    DEYOUNGWell, these are not assassinations as defined by the administration. These are strikes against armed combatants as defined by the Geneva Conventions as interpreted by the United States and under the authorization that Congress passed in 2001 for the United States using whatever means the president thought were necessary to go after al Qaida and its affiliates.

  • 13:15:59

    NNAMDISo what signature strikes?

  • 13:16:01

    DEYOUNGSignature strikes are strikes in which the target is not a named person that can be identified. We are going to strike this guy on the ground because we know where he is. they're more sort of pattern of behavior strikes, that if you've been watching an area either by surveillance drones or satellites or on the ground intelligence and you determine that there are a group of people who are acting in concert with people who are targetable and are contributing to the aims of those people, that in fact that signature, that pattern of behavior makes them legitimate counterterrorism targets.

  • 13:16:38

    NNAMDIKaren DeYoung, she reads the fine print. She's a senior diplomatic correspondent with "The Washington Post." She joins us in studio along with Jennifer Cooke, who is the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. We're talking about "Rethinking Intervention Abroad" and inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. You can send email to or send us a tweet @kojoshow.

  • 13:17:02

    NNAMDIJennifer, Mali is something of a case study as to how the U.S. might deal with some of these issues in the future. Can you outline the conflict in Mali briefly and it where stands at this moment?

  • 13:17:13

    COOKEYes, at this point a collection of Islamists extremists groups control most of the country's northern half and the key cities in the north. The government in the national capital, Bamako, has collapsed and there's been, this happened in March of last year, and there's been something of stasis since then with these Islamist groups controlling the big cities in the north and the government in Bamako in disarray.

  • 13:17:41

    COOKETwo weeks ago the Islamists made an aggressive surge southwards toward the government in Bamako and the French military, seeing that the Malian was completely incapable of stopping this surge, intervened with helicopter gunships and now has forces on the ground and so forth.

  • 13:17:59

    COOKEAll of this while waiting for West African forces to get themselves organized, to deploy to help dislodge the Islamists. Into that mix then as the French intervened one of the leaders of the groups in the north, of AQIM, her splinter group of al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, ordered an attack against a gas installation in Algeria, saying that this is in retaliation for Algeria, allowing the French to use their airspace and in retaliation against the French for intervening in Mali.

  • 13:18:36

    COOKESo the last two weeks have seen a major kind of escalation of momentum in Mali and have opened it up really to a much more international focus right now. And the U.S. is debating how directly should they get engaged in this. And I think there is a debate within the administration on that.

  • 13:18:55

    NNAMDII'm going to get back to that in a second but for further clarification we need in media have a tendency to paint the groups involved in a conflict like that in Mali with a broad brush, describing the insurgence as "Islamic militants or Islamic terrorists." And the media used the name al Qaida but fails to make the distinctions there either. Can you talk about that?

  • 13:19:15

    COOKEYes, I mean, that's, it is a problem and they overlap. First, al Qaida and the Islamic Maghreb is not an offshoot of al Qaida central. It's actually, its predecessor was a domestic Algerian group of Islamists fighting the government in Algeria, who eventually got pushed down into the Sahara and took on the name and pledged allegiance to al Qaida but have their own agenda in that.

  • 13:19:39

    COOKEThey've been joined by a group of Tuareg and (unintelligible) led by a Tuareg, but who has a Salafist orientation by a group of...

  • 13:19:48

    NNAMDISee, you read the fine print too. Go ahead.

  • 13:19:51 another group that stems largely out of Mauritania the movement for unity in jihad in West Africa. These groups, together with the secular Tuareg group were the ones that launched the takeover of northern Mali. The secular Tuareg have not been sidelined. And there's a whole mix of other ethnicities and militia groups operating up there. This complicates the picture in terms of intervention, who's who if ever, and this is maybe far off, we start to target people. Who do you target? Who do they represent?

  • 13:20:23

    COOKEAnd at the end of the day, in the political solution, who are the genuine representatives in Northern Mali that eventually you build some kind of political framework there? It becomes very difficult. We don't have a whole lot of knowledge about this region, just having essentially had no presence there for decades now.

  • 13:20:46

    NNAMDIKaren -- and both of you, but Karen, you first, what issues does a conflict like Mali present for the U.S.?

  • 13:20:53

    DEYOUNGWell, I think what Jennifer just said points to some of the problems that the United States has. Going back to this playbook to the rules that they're trying to set up for who is a legitimate target of U.S. action. Because the groups in Mali are such a melange of different organizations with different goals and because the U.S. legal interpretation is that we basically don't care for legal purposes groups fighting among themselves and against different governments in different countries. Our legal authority is to strike against people who plan to do harm to the United States or U.S. citizens.

  • 13:21:35

    DEYOUNGAnd so as U.S. policymakers have looked at these groups they've said, well first of all some of them are secular, although the secular ones, as we just said, have been kind of sidelined. Some of them have nothing to do with al-Qaida. None of them has actually said that they want to attack the U.S. homeland. And so U.S. policymakers are saying, well what's our role here? You know, we have been trying before -- the Mali government sort of blew up last year -- we were trying to train military forces there so that they could protect their own country because ultimately that was in our interest.

  • 13:22:14

    DEYOUNGNow the military has had a coup there and so under our own laws we are not allowed to aid the military there. And so it's a very confusing situation. And in a sense the administration is kind of stuck with the rules that it's made and trying to fit within those rules while looking at what it thinks is a very threatening and difficult situation that could spread far beyond where it is right now.

  • 13:22:40

    NNAMDIWell, Jennifer, allow me to complicate it a little more. Because of the reporting that has been taking place since the collective group of Islamists took control in the north, a lot of people see this as a human rights issue because they have been apparently installing Sharia Law in a fairly brutal manner in that part of the world. The other aspect of it is that when you say al-Qaida, regardless of how you pars and define it, we here tend to get the message, oh these are people who intend at some point to attack the United States. So how do you distinguish between local conflicts in a situation like this and imminent threats to the U.S.?

  • 13:23:17

    COOKEWell, that's actually a big one and it takes a lot of intelligence on the ground and understanding the distinctions among these various groups and eventually perhaps playing on those fishers and divisions among those groups to find a political solution. But that complicates things. I think the United States knows that it's a little bit on its back foot here, which is why it's insisting that African troops -- West African troops take the lead.

  • 13:23:46

    COOKEThe Chadian armed forces are sending 2,000 troops. They're very keen on getting the Algerian military and government involved in this because the Algerians and the Chadians know the players. They know the terrain. They know who's who and they're able to make these distinctions in ways that the United States, at this point, is not able to and doesn't want to get sucked into making those distinctions and ultimately making things worse.

  • 13:24:14

    NNAMDIHere is Nick in Fairfax, Va. on the phone. Nick, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:24:19

    NICKHey guys and thanks for taking my call and talking about this subject. This is fascinating to me. I'm concerned though that this rulebook that's being drawn up on justifying airstrikes and specifically targeting people, I'm just trying to figure out the spirit of it. Is it being drawn up with the hope that we can justify these actions or is it being drawn up in hopes that we can better kind of protect the victims, so to speak, or the people that we're targeting from being incorrectly targeted?

  • 13:24:48

    NICKWe've talked about not attacking some people because they're really not a threat to the United States, even though they could be a threat overseas. But they've not talked about attacking us domestically. I'm just -- I have a hard time understanding this because, you know, what happens when somebody from say al-Qaida and the Saudi Arabian Peninsula or the Arabian Peninsula targets a general in his home? You know, do we call that a drone strike and do we just accept it as rules of war?

  • 13:25:13


  • 13:25:14

    DEYOUNGWell, I think you've hit on a lot of the questions that have been raised about this. You know, I would say in response to the various possible rationales that you raised, I think all of those. I think they would like all of those to apply. But again, one of the big problems with all of this is that it's a secret. And this playbook is a secret. The target lists are secret. When they strike someone it's a secret.

  • 13:25:44

    DEYOUNGAnd so you're kind of left with accepting to the extent they even say when they've taken a strike, with accepting their insistence that this was legal, that the targets are very carefully chosen. That as the administration has long argued using missiles fired from drones is far more effective and precise and surgical than just dropping bombs on people, that the possibility for error is much less. And so we're left because so much of this is secret, with kind of accepting that it's legal, that a great deal of care is taken and that the people who are being targeted are in fact the right people.

  • 13:26:33

    NNAMDINick, thank you very much for your call. What do President Obama's recent choices for Secretary of Defense, State Department and now the CIA signal to you about his approach to interventions abroad in his second term? First you, Karen.

  • 13:26:46

    DEYOUNGI don't think we'll see a lot of change. I think that if you look at past statements and what we know about -- certainly about John Brennan, as I was mentioning before. He has been the architect of many of these program, at least in the counterterrorism sphere in terms of broader foreign policy questions, how to deal with Iran, how to deal with the Middle East, how to deal with China and the rest of Asia. I don't think you'll see much change at all. In fact, I think these are people who have been chosen because they are in sync with what the administration would like to do.

  • 13:27:20

    NNAMDISame question to you, Jennifer.

  • 13:27:21

    COOKEWell, I think on Africa issues, again, I think the U.S. has and will continue to want to keep a very light footprint and avoid kind of un-open-ended entanglements and direct military action as much as possible. It's being drawn into a couple of these things in Somalia, for example, drone strikes in Somalia, the LRA advisory group, the hundred or so special ops who are advising the Ugandan government on tracking down Joseph Kony, that's something kind of new. It's kind of...

  • 13:27:51

    NNAMDILRA being Lord's Resistance Army.

  • 13:27:53

    COOKE...the Lord's Resistance Army that's terrorized groups in Northern Uganda. And again, as you say, this Mali -- the Mali intervention is going to be a test case. They're looking at the Somalia model in which the U.S. supported African union troops, Kenyans and Ethiopians and fairly successfully squeezed out Al-Shabaab, the extremist insurgent group there, and are saying this is the kind of model giving political space now. And there's an opportunity for something to happen on the political front.

  • 13:28:23

    COOKEThis might be the model that we want to see in Mali down the line. It doesn't get the U.S. engaged in the controversial issues of strikes and so forth.

  • 13:28:33

    NNAMDIJennifer Cooke is the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Karen DeYoung is a senior diplomatic correspondent with the Washington Post. Thank you both for joining us. We're going to take a short break. When we come back the director of an Academy Award-nominated film about a secretive Israeli security service. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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