Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Why Mali Must Be Rescued

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Why Mali Must Be Rescued

Article excerpt

The United States and France must bring North Africa into the fight to prevent Mali from becoming a desert stronghold for Islamist militants.

French airstrikes that began on Friday have stopped, for now, a network of terrorists, criminals and religious extremists from taking over Mali. Until the French stepped in, the near-collapse of the military had threatened to turn Mali, a landlocked, desperately poor country, into a desert stronghold for jihadists.

The United States, which has spent more than $500 million over the last four years to keep Islamist militants at bay in West Africa, has its hands full in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt and Libya, among other places, but it is in our national interest to support the French. North African countries, in particular Algeria, must also help save Mali from catastrophe.

This conflict is not like other African wars that had only marginal effects on the West. The Islamists in Mali have linked up with Boko Haram, the Nigerian militant group that blew up United Nations offices in Abuja in 2011, and with Ansar al-Shariah, which is thought to be responsible for the murders last September of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya.

The French aerial attacks have stopped the Islamists -- including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, its offshoot the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, and Ansar Dine, a group of Tuareg rebels from the north -- from seizing an airport and river port, and marching on the capital, Bamako. But the militants are reconstituting and rearming in their northern desert stronghold.

The United States need not put combat troops on the ground. Instead, we should provide intelligence, equipment, financing and training for a West African intervention force that the United Nations Security Council approved in December (but did not finance). The French will not be able to depart quickly -- even if the West African force is assembled, France will have to mentor and coordinate troops from its former colonies like Mauritania, Niger and Chad.

International cooperation has been effective against Al-Shabab, a Qaeda affiliate in Somalia, and it can succeed in Mali. In Somalia, American troops and contractors trained and equipped African Union troops, including soldiers from Uganda and Burundi. Together with a new Somali army, they pushed Shabab terrorists out of Mogadishu and much of southern Somalia last year.

North Africa, not West Africa, is the key to saving Mali. One proposal, to have Nigeria lead a coalition of West African forces in Mali, has little chance of success; Nigeria lacks the capacity to fight a guerrilla war or an urban war. It has English-speaking Christian troops who might exacerbate Mali's ethnic and religious tensions, and its heavy-handed attempts to counter its own Boko Haram extremists have so far failed. …

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