As the Economic Community Of West African States (Ecowas) gears up to send between 3000 and 5000 troops to help stabilise Mali the media has begun hailing it as the 'next Somalia'. As fighting between government troops, separatist rebels and the Islamic extremist group Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) continues, West Africa could indeed be about to witness a situation in which a small force of outside forces get caught up in fighting well out of their control in a situation as complex as it is impossible to win.
It seems unlikely that, as with almost every other military campaign to destroy Islamic extremism, this Ecowas mission will be successful. A more likely scenario is that apart from scattered battles the international force will see little of the terrorists that they are supposedly being sent to fight, instead they will find themselves in the middle of a civil war between the transitional government and the forces of the Tuareg rebellion under the National Movement for the Liberation of Asawad (MNLA). Eventually they will be forced to pull out leaving Mali little better off than it was before.
Why is it so hard to combat groups such as AQIM? The answer may stem from the difference in tactics between the range of national and international forces and the terrorist groups they target. While there has been a marked move towards more flexible counter-terrorism strategy since the beginning of the GWOT (such as COIN in the USA) this is in no way capable of producing a coherent military solution to the problem of international terrorism. International campaigns (ISAF, AMISOM etc) have had varying levels of success in combating terrorist groups in small geographically defined areas but therein lies the flaw. Such attempts to militarily combat terrorism are confined by borders and political limits upon their ability to engage enemy forces. It is often the case that ground forces will advance across territory and even take towns without much resistance but, having moved on, the insurgents will simply return. Just as it is impossible to kill water by hitting it with a rock, insurgents with flow around a military excursion, using borders and safe areas, and then return once it has left. Even when, as in Somalia, terrorist groups lose open governance of areas the return will still occur albeit in an altered form.
Of course the other issue with attempting to kill water with a rock is that, however big or shiny a rock you use, water cannot die. However many times terrorist cells are destroyed by ground incursions or strikes from UAVs and aircraft they will be reformed or reconstituted. For every death statistic you see on the news, for every drone strike that killed terrorists and civilians, more and more angry people are pushed over the edge and join the cause. However much ground you take, bombs you drop, alliances you make or wars you start there is no military final solution to solve global terrorism. Militarist strategies may hold them back, may disrupt or interdict their actions but it cannot be a solution. As Ecowas may be about to find out to their cost, global terrorism is a like a river delta; it breaks and forms and breaks again, changing shape and size and density around the globe. Rocks will not stop it; we must find other solutions to finally end the insidious threat of terror.