In recent weeks, Mali has been a constant fixture in the headlines. Given the West African nation’s poor standing in the Human Development Index and low governmental capacity, Mali’s relevance to the politics of the G-20 might come as a surprise. However, in the foreign policy debate of the 2012 election, Mali figured as one of the most important factors related to efforts at world peace, particularly in the Middle East.
How does a poor West African country, unknown to most Americans, figure into the security concerns of the developed world?
In that October 22 debate, Mitt Romney (surprisingly, considering his “Russia=geopolitical foe” thing) hit the nail on the head by referencing al-Qaeda’s growing presence in Mali.
Today, Mali is the largest al-Qaeda stronghold in the world. Northern Mali, a vast swath of land nearly the size of France, is currently under the control of Islamist rebels and Jihadists that have been linked to Nigeria’s Boko Haram, Libya’s Ansar al-Sharia — a group linked to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi last September — and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
How did all this happen? Part of the current chaos in Mali can be traced to its colonial history. As was the case in many other African nations, the construction of Mali was a piecemeal endeavor that did not take into consideration that ethnic distribution of its inhabitants. Southern Mali tends to be populated by black-skinned Malians; northern Mali is populated by the nomadic Tuareg people, who identify more with North African populations due to their skin color and other cultural practices. At various times in Mali’s history, the Tuaregs have attempted to rise up and take control, most recently last year. Since a 2012 coup in which the former Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure was overthrown, the country has been divided into the government-held South and the Islamist north.
While human rights advocates have expressed concern about the strict version of Sharia law that the Islamists have implemented, including flogging, stoning and more brutal practices like amputations, security remains the most pressing issue for international bodies. Mali’s instability threatens to not only bring extremist elements into Western Africa, but also destabilize the Western African sub-region and serve as a training ground for terrorists plotting attacks on the West. Additionally, the nation’s wealth of historic sites such as Timbuktu, a major West African trading center in the 14th to 16th centuries that was renowned for its scholars, provides those seeking to make a statement through violence with many prime targets.
In the last two weeks, France has launched an offensive against the rebels in the hope of aiding the Malian government. France’s actions have come after months of debate over how to implement the December 20 U.N. Security Council Resolution that established a “Mali Support Mission.” While France operates in Mali, Nigerian troops are preparing to aid in the stabilization efforts within the next month. A UN coalition of African troops is also currently undergoing training and may deploy as soon as this summer.
Although France has shown signs of success thus far, through the capture of Kidal, the last major militant-held town in Mali, the well-equipped rebels are showing signs of resiliency. It is likely that the conflict may be more protracted than expected due to an underestimation of the opponent. Despite the fact that France has pledged to stay in the country as long as necessary, with the stalled deployment of ECOWAS and UN troops, it remains to be seen whether or not other global powers, like the United States and the United Kingdom, will provide more than mere support services. Presently, the United States Air Force is flying in French troops and providing equipment, but it is unclear whether the American government will more directly engage with the Malian conflict. Last week, several American hostages were killed in a startling attack on a refinery in Algeria. The attack was apparently a retaliation for Algeria’s allowing France to use its airspace for strikes in Mali. Given Tuesday’s announcement of the establishment of a base for U.S. reconnaissance drones and troops in neighboring Niger, it looks clear that American investments in intelligence and military resources are to expand in West Africa. There’s a new frontier to consider in the war on terror.