Washington, DC — As the year draws to a close, one of the most serious crises with which the Atlantic community will have to grapple in 2013 festers just over the horizon. This past spring, in a matter of just a few short weeks, the West African country of Mali went from being what U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had previously hailed as "a model of stability and democracy in sub-Saharan Africa" to a failed state.
To compound these political, security, and humanitarian setbacks, Mali has also had to suffer the takeover by Al Qaeda's local affiliate and its extremist allies of an area of national territory the size of France--a geopolitical catastrophe which, as French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius recently noted, "not only threatens Mali and neighboring African states, but Europe itself."
Separatist sentiment among the historically nomadic Tuareg--whose population is dispersed across Mauritania, Mali, Algeria, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Libya--is not a new phenomenon. It was only with the greatest difficulty that, in the early decades of the twentieth century, the French finally subjugated the last resisting Tuareg chieftains and incorporating their domains into the Soudan Français. Since Mali became independent in 1960, persistent political and economic marginalization by successive governments in far-off Bamako has led to full-blown rebellions on four separate occasions by Tuareg seeking to carve a separate homeland, dubbed "Azawad," out of the three northernmost provinces of the country, Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu.
What distinguished the most recent revolt, which broke out in late 2011, was that this time the homegrown insurgents of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) were reinforced by battle-hardened ethnic kin who had served as mercenaries under the late Muammar Gaddafi and brought with them heavy armaments looted from Libyan unguarded stockpiles following the collapse of the dictatorship.
The Malian army fared poorly against the rebels, sparking complaints from soldiers that they were being sent into battle without adequate weapons and supplies. The Malian press took up the rank-and-file military's criticism of regime incompetence and corruption as did civilian demonstrators, some violent, in the streets of the capital. In March, a protest by low-ranking soldiers spun out of control and, before anyone knew what had happened, the elected government of President Amadou Toumani Touré was overthrown.
The consequences of the coup, however, extended well beyond the regime change in Bamako. Taking advantage of the junta's diplomatic isolation amid universal condemnation of the coup and the subsequent cut-off of military assistance to the Malian armed forces, the MNLA, joined by fighters from Ansar Dine ("Defenders of the Faith"), a local Islamist militant group headed by a Tuareg leader with close ties to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), seized control of the three northern provinces and, in early April, proclaimed their "independence."
Since then, the breakaway region has become a destination for violent extremist groups from across the Sahel--including AQIM, an AQIM offshoot, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa(MUJAO), and various Nigerian, Sudanese, Sahrawi, and other fighters--all of whom have been drawn by the prospect of a safe haven where they train and operate freely. Together these extremists forcibly sidelined the largely secular MNLA and imposed a harsh religious totalitarianism on the Tuareg and other peoples of the region, banning alcohol consumption, smoking, music, and other "un-Islamic" behavior, instituting brutal punishment floggings and amputations, and razing Sufi shrines and other monuments deemed idolatrous, including half a dozen World Heritage sites in Timbuktu. At the same time, international law enforcement agencies have expressed concern about burgeoning volume of Europe-bound drug and other trafficking which the militants have permitted through the areas they now control.
As if things could get no worse, the Sahel is currently suffering through its third drought in a decade and United Nations officials estimate that some 18 million people across the region face a severe food shortage. Exacerbating the situation is the ongoing conflict in Mali, where 3.5 million people face hunger, including some 500,000 who are also internally displaced. More than a quarter of a million of other Malians have crossed the country's borders and taken refuge in neighboring countries which are already stressed by their own food insecurity. And if the military intervention proposed by the subregional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) against the Islamists in northern Mali is ever undertaken, the number of refugees and others displaced would likely increase several times above current figures.
All of this poses several challenges for the international community in general and the United States and its European allies in particular.
First, there must be a reckoning with the failure of intelligence and policy in the lead-up to the current crisis and such defects as hitherto existed need to be remedied. Clearly Mali was neither the "poster child for good governance" that one U.S. Agency for International Development report extolled nor its deposed president quite the dashing paragon conjured up by his many fans in various European chanceries. If sensible policy decisions are going to be made in the coming months, good information and knowledgeable analysis will be needed. Moreover, it is not only Westerners who need a dose realism: the most recent "plan" which Mali's neighbors have submitted to the UN Security Council is nothing short of delusional in its assertion that a mere three thousand African troops can do the job of restoring the status ante quo.
Second, if it is to be workable, any "road map" out of the current situation will have to take into account the need to properly sequence the steps. On the one hand, unless decisive action is undertaken to quickly to dislodge them, the extremists in northern Mali are likely to consolidate their positions, creating a sanctuary for terrorists, extremists, criminals, and other agents of destabilization from across the Maghreb and the Sahel--and threatening European security in the process. On the other hand, the interim civilian-led government installed to replace the junta by African mediators has proven no more popular with ordinary Malians than the corrupt government overthrown by the coup earlier this year. Hence a more legitimate authority needs to somehow be constituted around which the Malian military can be rebuilt and negotiations conducted with non-extremists in north in the prelude to any offensive against the Islamists.
Finally, given commitments elsewhere and the lack of domestic political support for deployment of ground troops as well as the fiscal constraints which they all face, the United States and its transatlantic partners will need to carefully husband such resources as they are able to muster in the management of the Malian crisis. This challenge, however, ought to be embraced as an opportunity to develop new modes of cooperation and coordination, including between the U.S. Africa Command, the training mission recently endorsed by a group of European Union ministers, and the bilateral initiatives launched by several European countries.
In short, a carefully calibrated approach will be the key to the viability and sustainability of any strategy to resolve a challenge that will loom large over the new year.
J. Peter Pham is Director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC.