New location, old story.
Been saying for about a decade now that Long War eventually migrates to Central Asia (less likely) and Africa (more likely), because it's "losing proposition" would eventually wear out its welcome in the Middle East (latest version now unfolding in Syria). Will it succeed in Africa? Only in the harshest locations above and around the tenth parallel that divides a predominately Muslim north ("cowboy" in American parlance, which sounds better than "herder") and a predominately Christian/animist south ("farmer" or any location-fixed economic activity). These two characters have never been friends anywhere and anytime in this world - no matter what Rodgers and Hammerstein said.
What is the dynamic we see? We see a crisis du jour (Tuaregs in North Mali) attract co-ethnic mercenaries with nothing to do after Libya (and flush with small arms). We also see an extremist Islamic uptick as an identity unifier. Then, to no surprise, al-Qaeda shows up. Where is this place? Unbelievably remote. Hillary Clinton called it "one of the remotest places in the world." (How many times have we heard that?).
Next, the words "save haven" pop up and we have a Western intervention seguing into all the usual insurgency/counterinsurgency dynamics. The Long War doesn't go away because America takes most of its "ball" and goes home (or to East Asia); it merely keeps shifting location - as it has done for a couple of decades now (check out AQ Central's many addresses over the years - all garden spots).
This is the small-wars world we live in (subject of my upcoming "think again" piece in Foreign Policy). We can get all jacked about China but, quite frankly, that's a self-liquidating problem (China's slowdown and other internal contradictions, plus the natural security balancing in East Asia like Japan moving to spend more on defense and logically go nuclear eventually).
America thinks it's in charge of all this, so when we decide the "decade of wars is over" (Obama), then by God, they're over - right? No American troops, no headlines (that matter) and no wars (that count). Instead, we now "stand up" to those dastardly Chinese because it fits our fiscal fights and the Pentagon's need to find a distant and relatively benign "floor" to its budget ("Let's plan for an imaginary super-cool high-tech war with the Chinese so we can buy stuff like crazy - or as crazy as Congress will let us be for now."). Thus we "heal the force" by getting rid of bodies (personnel) and restocking our toys. China is the perfect cold-war-like foe for that. Chances of real war? Virtually zero. But, man, what a force sizer! (Actually not so good, but you make do with what you have in tough times, right?).
And meanwhile, the Long War keeps unfolding. No argument on Obama's symmetricizing the fight (our SOF v. their terrorists), but since we're no longer in the business of "healing post-conflict societies/nations/etc" because in the past we insisted on doing it all ourselves (and all our own way) and that's too costly now (plus, we could never cooperate with those dastardly Chinese), those places just get shot up by our SOF and drone and get left with the smoking holes. If these places are lucky, there's something for the Chinese to come in and extract. If not, they are simply left behind by an uncaring world that will show up to kill bad guys and nothing else.
This is Colin Powell's dream world; no wonder he admires Obama so: "I'm just here to kill bad guys and when there are no more bad guys to kill, I move on." That's the Powell Doctrine in a nutshell (insert "overwhelming force" HERE).
But Obama is the great peacemaker. We know this because he has a medal to prove it. He stops America's over-stretched ambitions on nation-building and replaces it with worldwide targeted assassinations, and we are pleased with his wisdom. But his total lack of caring for what happens next in those places where the smoking holes are all we leave behind?
History will judge that as both strategically unwise and incredibly cruel.
"Lead from behind" is a brilliantly descriptive phrase.