In March of 2012, a coup led by Malian soldiers overthrew the democratic leadership of Mali. The soldiers who led the coup said they were motivated by the government’s inability to deal with Taureg rebels in Northern Mali. Shortly following the coup, the Taureg separatists seized the cities in Northern Mali in an attempt to fulfill their secessionist objectives. To make things more complicated, an Islamic militant group called Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), seized the Northern Mali cities imposing Sharia law on the citizens of these cities. In the last month these terrorists surged into Southern Mali taking the city of Konno, which is a bridge between the North and South of Mali and this prompted the French to intervene militarily on behalf of the Malian government. The French have provided air support and combat forces to repel the militant Islamic group while the Economic Community of Western Africa States (ECOWAS) prepares a military force to assist the Malian government.
With all of the moving parts the scenario in Mali in confusing at best. Further complicating the situation was the tragic hostage crisis in neighboring Algeria. Despite the multiple facets of the situation, the question still remains: What does this mean for the U.S. and the international community? And why should we be concerned? We should be concerned because it poses a terrorist threat to our security. Although the answer to these questions may appear simple, determining how to respond is incredibly difficult. The last thing U.S. policy makers want to see is Mali become another safe haven for terrorists with the ability to strike America, or America’s allies just as Afghanistan was a safe haven prior to September 11th. But just as Afghanistan was a complex region so too is Mali.
From a security perspective, the U.S. would prefer to have a state that subscribed to the United States’ war on terror by pursuing and eliminating terrorist threats. Until the coup in March, Mali had been hailed an example of democracy in Africa but the recent struggles have shown how fragile a young democracy is and how prone to war young democracies can be. So how does the U.S. support the French and support a democratic government in Mali that will be a partner in the War on Terror? The recent war in Afghanistan has shown policymakers how an encompassing invasion can become a protracted and violent occupation that may not be successful. Even though this lesson was evident in Afghanistan, it will hopefully not be lost on the French.
What is clear about this situation? Well, there are at least three different groups involved: the Malians, the Tauregs, and AQIM, all with different goals. The terrain is not mountainous like Afghanistan but the geography is hazardous with vast stretches of desert which presents its own difficulties. Its borders are porous allowing individuals to come and go similar to Afghanistan.
Of the three groups it is the perceived threat from AQIM poses that is most concerning. The Anti-Western sentiment held by the AQIM and the enforcement of Sharia law could lead to a failed state that harbors terrorists, which in turn could lead to a base of operations for future terrorist attacks. There are reports of terrorist run camps, as well as reports that AQIM continues to recruit from sub-Saharan region. If this conflict remained between the Taureg separatists and the Malian government it is likely that there would not be as much concern shown. However, that is not the case and the French have intervened.
The French are teetering on the edge of what could quickly become disaster. If the French do not wear out their welcome they will face an uphill battle to success. The major threat to the international community is the Islamic terrorist group, AQIM. If the threat of AQIM is eradicated or it becomes clear they are incapable of success, there is still the difficulty of the Taureg rebels. This separatist group will be a continuous thorn in the side of the Malian government. This threat will perpetually weaken the Malian state and therefore could make Mali a safe harbor for terrorists. What makes this perpetual cycle possible is the fact that government forces have already failed once to prevent the Taureg separatists from seizing the cities. The Malian army clearly does not have the capacity to maintain security and to prevent this from happening again. The French will not want to sustain a long term occupation and the ECOWAS forces will unlikely want to do this as well nor will either be able to support such efforts.
Mali presents a very complex situation to the international community. It is important that policy makers do not repeat the same mistakes that were made in Afghanistan. The lessons learned must serve as a roadmap to new ideas and way of thinking about how to solve the current problem. If this is not done, an already dangerous situation may spiral out of control with unforeseen consequences.
Joe is a blog writer for the Whitehead Journal and a master’s canidate at the Whitehead School of Diplomacy.