Next foreign worry: Mali

By IndepthAfrica
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Dec 11th, 2012
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As far as military involvement is concerned, Iraq should soon take its place in America’s crowded rear-view mirror. Next year, provided President Obama keeps his promise, we may also be referring to Afghanistan in the past tense.

Yet, unfortunately, this is no time to relax. Judging by recent developments, Mali — a sprawling, landlocked former French colony in western Africa — is in line to become our nation’s next big foreign worry as terrorists, some of them associated with al-Qaida, destabilize the region.

To many in the west, Mali is best known as the country with a city named Timbuktu. Like Afghanistan before it, the very name of the place has always carried with it a certain sense of distance, mystery and even (to us) irrelevance. But the White House is surely keeping a close eye on the situation there as it seems to worsen day by day.

The United Nations and France have joined the United States in seeking a way to drive extremists out of Mali’s northern region and thus, they hope, prevent the creation of yet another operating base for jihadists who are determined to wage war against western values and institutions.

Mali’s transitional government, in office only since a military coup earlier this year, is described as weak and lacking legitimacy. Its army is poorly equipped and in a state of disarray. According to a British press report published Sunday, African and Western powers are already in disagreement over the timing and goals of a military strike to dislodge the jihadists.

“Also unclear is whether regional African forces are strong enough to defeat well-armed militants in desert terrain the size of Texas without help on the ground from Western armies,” the report in The Independent, a London newspaper, continued.

In other words, here we go again. The report declares that “the momentum for a military intervention has surged in the region and among Western powers, as the radical Islamists and al-Qaida militants have deepened their grip over the north.”

Although the experts predict that any military strike is months away, both Washington and Paris are active diplomatically in encouraging African nations to take the lead, just as they did most recently in Somalia, where Islamist radicals also had seized much of the country. In response, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has approved a 3,300-member force for northern Mali.

However, unlike Somalia, whose neighbors supported military action, not all of Mali’s neighbors would welcome intervention. Nigeria has its own Islamist threat from the notorious Boko Haram organization while Algeria fears a military strike could drive northern Mali’s militants back into Algeria, where Islamist extremists battled the government in the 1990s.

“If the Western countries send troops, that will be fine,” an extremist told a British journalist. “We are prepared for war. If they don’t come here, one day we will attack them. If we cannot do this in our time, our sons and the next generation will attack the West.”

American experts see al-Qaida involvement in the Islamic terrorism network’s North and West Africa affiliate, AQIM, and that it participated in the September attack on the United States mission in Libya that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

An estimated 2,000 marchers in Mali’s capital last weekend urged the United Nations Security Council to pass a resolution calling for a military campaign to push out the Islamists. Perhaps that makes sense, but as we’ve learned from Iraq and Afghanistan, military force carries no guarantee of the desired results.

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