Has anyone ever even heard of Mali?
Relatively few people other than Africa observers and Terrorism analysts have heard of Mali, but that obscurity may be short-lived. This large, sparsely populated West African nation is rapidly beginning to show signs of becoming the next front in the War on Terror. In recent years, Mali has made tremendous progress in advancing human rights, nurturing democratic institutions and professionalizing its military. Unfortunately, that very military overthrew its own government in a coup d’etat in March of this year, effectively halting any progress, along with critical security operations in the rural Northern desert. Ultimately, an unchecked growth of a variety of insurgent groups and Islamic extremists are now essentially transforming Northern Mali into a new Afghanistan. If not addressed decisively, Northern Mali could become the foundation of the largest terrorist sanctuary in the world.
Like several nations in this region, Mali has had a long-standing dispute with Tuareg rebels in its remote northern desert. Tuaregs are a nomadic, semi-stateless people who roam the Sahara from Algeria to Northern Nigeria and have a history of armed uprisings, claiming ethnic persecution and inequitable allocation of resources.
On March 21st of this year, disenfranchised Malian Army officers and soldiers felt that the inadequate and infrequent pay combined with a lack of action against Tuareg rebels in Northern Mali were good reasons to overthrow the government. Since then, the leaders of the coup have been preoccupied with consolidating their authority in Bamako, resulting in the desertion of most of the northern army which had been keeping rebel forces and transnational terrorists in check. Consequently, Tuareg rebels and Islamic terror groups have capitalized on the lack of authority and have established sanctuary in Northern Mali. Among these groups is Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which had been taking a severe beating in nearby Algeria, but is now enjoying the freedom associated with the chaos of a failing state.
Thus, one of the very fears that inspired the coup has actually become reality because of the coup, and Northern Mali is now splintered into numerous, factionalized regions controlled by varied and often competing forces.
Many who read the minimal news coverage of this event look at the story and think that this is nothing new; just another coup in another obscure, African country. True, Mali is not exactly a major player on the world scene and it is understandable that few would think a coup there is big news. However, it is entirely possible that Mali may soon begin to follow the same trajectory of another small, isolated country by going from obscurity to the focus of the world’s attention … Afghanistan.
A terrorist safe haven has three primary requirements; a weak or compliant central government, the border protection only a state can provide and a supportive local populace or authority. Currently, Northern Mali meets all three criteria. The Malian Junta is too concerned with expanding their power base and enriching themselves to be bothered with trivialities such as governing and defending the hinterland against rebels and terrorists. No external force can intervene directly, as crossing the border would constitute a violation of Mali’s sovereignty. Finally, the terrorists, while not possessing the support of all the local inhabitants, still exert control through brute force or by co-opting the local honchos who then keep the people in line.
Northern Mali now serves as the best safe haven AQIM has ever had.
The danger of this situation is that it provides sanctuary for like-minded insurgents seeking the overthrow of governments in neighboring Mauretania and Niger. This refuge creates a strategic advantage for rebel forces in those respective nations, as they can plan and prepare for operations, execute them, and return to the safety of a foreign border. Interdiction by the security forces of any of the three nations is unlikely as they do not have a cross-border pursuit treaty and such pursuit would technically meet the definition of an act of war. These conditions are conducive to an increase of extremist-fueled instability, an increase of civilian casualties, one or all three countries being overthrown and a region-wide humanitarian crisis.
The net effect would be not one destabilized nation in West Africa, but three. Since Islamic terror groups thrive in conditions of chaos and instability, this instability would therefore lead to the largest safe haven they have ever had and a degree of human suffering that would make Darfur pale in comparison.
Courses of Action
Restoring order to Northern Mali is the key to averting the world’s largest terrorist sanctuary and another humanitarian crisis.
ECOWAS and France should be the prime movers in implementing a solution. ECOWAS is the Economic Community of West African States, a fifteen nation alliance, functionally equivalent to NATO and possessed of a substantial military capacity. Conflict prevention, peacekeeping and security are specified tasks in its charter. Since most African nations are dependent upon foreign aid and investment, and instability of this nature is a direct threat to that revenue stream, this conflict falls within the ECOWAS purview. ECOWAS should be the primary contributor of ground troops in an armed intervention.
Due to its colonial history, France has strong ties with Mali as well as Niger and Mauretania, but its military capacity is diminished due to its support of the War on Terror and Defense cutbacks. France should provide air support in the form of heavy lift platforms, strike aircraft and Special Operations Forces (SOF).
Further, the US should increase the existing training of ECOWAS military forces and provide signals, electronic and geospatial intelligence support.
The general intent of an armed intervention would be to first engage African Union (AU) and ECOWAS diplomatic assets to convene a summit and forge, at a minimum, an agreement as to the nature of the threat in Northern Mali and secure authorization to eliminate that threat militarily. ECOWAS forces would then link up with local militias of each disputed area in Northern Mali as they have the most accurate intelligence picture of anyone involved. Then ECOWAS, with French air and SOF support, would sweep and clear each contested area. Aggressive diplomatic efforts should also take place in Bamako to establish a unity government in Mali, at which time ECOWAS would hand over responsibility to Malian security forces for stability operations.
If not addressed decisively, it is possible that Northern Mali could become the foundation of the largest terrorist sanctuary in the world. Anyone watching the War on Terror knows that the world does not need another Afghanistan under the Taliban. So far, the US and the rest of the world have failed to recognize the threat. Fortunately there is still time to take a lesson from history and acknowledge that doing nothing is not an effective way to preempt another 9/11.
De Oppresso Liber