Background: Up until earlier this year, Mali was considered by many to be an example of African democracy. Indeed, in spite of its crippling poverty, the country has sustained free and mostly fair elections since 1991. However, in a series of recent unforeseen events, analysts and policy-makers are forced to seriously ask whether or not Mali could become, in the words of the French Defense Minister, “west African Afghanistan.”
The first seismic event began in January of this year when the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) led a rebellion to carve a Taureg state out of northern Mali. Bolstered by the influx of weapons and fighters from the conflict in Libya, as well as alliances with the well-armed Islamists – including al Qaeda-linked faction Ansar Dine – the rebels quickly made significant gains.
In a second surprising event, in March, mutinous low-ranking officers and enlisted men launched a successful coup against President Amadou Toumani Toure, over what they saw as Toure’s mishandling of the situation in the North. Though their intent was to more aggressively stamp out the rebellion, the political chaos in the capitol Bamako only seemed to embolden the rebels: in early April, MNLA and company unilaterally declared independence for and control over the State of Azawad.
Both the political and rebellion situations remain tenuous. After the leaders of the coup stepped aside, a shaky interim government in Bamako was left in the place of a democratically-elected president, preparing for a re-conquest of northern Mali. In the north, the Islamist Ansar Dine has managed to hijack the originally secular and nationalist goals of the Taureg rebels and implement a strict interpretation of Shariah Law for what they see as their newly established Islamic state (“Islamists Declare Full Control of Mali’s North“). The BBC reports of a public flogging in the old city of Timbuktu for drinking alcohol, something described as being “an unthinkable scene a few months ago in a country known for its tolerant and moderate brand of Islam.” However, recent reports of the secular and Islamist rebels clashing cast doubt on whether their fragile alliance can maintain control over a territory the size of France while also fighting off a re-conquest from Bamako.
Debate: Experts and officials are beginning to discuss the possibility of curbing the creation of a terrorist safe haven in lawless north Mali with some kind of foreign intervention. The following articles represent several answers to the question of how the U.S. and other interested parties should respond:
- The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace recorded a discussion panel with the Nigerian Ambassador Maman Sidikou, Rudolph Atallah of the Atlantic Council, Anouar Boukhars from McDaniel College, and J. Peter Pham also of the Atlantic Council, asking for their perspectives on the threat of al Qaeda terrorists gaining a foothold in northern Mali. They offered a range of proposals for the U.S. to including providing logistical support, training, and intelligence to regional actors.
- Andrew Lebovich, Associate Senior Analyst at the Navanti Group argues that “there are a number of structural and local particularities that may inhibit the emergence of northern Mali as a new ‘safe haven’ for jihadist groups.”
- Carey Biron, a reporter for allAfrica, outlines the need and risks for foreign military assistance as “calls mount for U.S. intervention in Mali.”
- James Traub, fellow of the Center on International Cooperation, offers an in-depth case for why the U.S. should “sit this one out.”
- Andrew McGregor, Director of Toronto-based agency Aberfoyle International Security, wrote a comprehensive report in the latest issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor of the situation in Mali with a specific focus on evaluating the current intervention plan put forth by the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS). McGregor cautions that a failure to address the situation could have serious regional and global consequences.
Do you think the response should include foreign intervention? If so, what kind?