Washington, DC — President Obama's inauguration finally trumped, if only temporarily, the bad news coming out of Mali and Algeria. From the front pages of U.S. newspapers, Americans have been getting a crash course in North Africa's desolate Sahel region and our fight against an alphabet soup of terrorist organizations intent on establishing a new safe haven from which to launch deadly attacks on regional, European, and U.S. interests.
A look at the map brings into focus what military analysts are calling Africa's "Arc of Instability." It stretches across the middle of Africa from the Gulf of Aden to the Atlantic, and has given al-Qaeda and its allies a clear path to extend their center of activity from Afghanistan into Africa. The principal terrorist group now dominating northern Mali is al-Qaeda's regional affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and it is not a newcomer to the Sahel. Beginning in 1991, it focused on attempts to overthrow the government of Algeria.
It was not until 2007 that the group, formerly known as the Salafist Group for Preaching & Combat, forged an alliance with al-Qaeda and broadened its operations to include western targets and kidnapping foreigners for ransom and contraband smuggling to finance its activities. AQIM and the other regional terrorist organizations are well armed with caches of Libyan arms available since the fall of Gaddafi.
They are extremely opportunistic, quickly taking advantage of a series of events in Mali (first a military coup, then a rebellion from a separatist Tuareg group known as MNLA), to seize control of an area the size of Texas in northern Mali from the MNLA and promptly imposing harsh sharia law.
What happened next are the headlines for the past month. A slow-rolling plan of action was agreed by the UN Security Council. However, France decided to move more quickly when it appeared that the jihadists were moving south to threaten the government in Bamako and reinforce their military positions throughout Mali.
While the French initiative has bought time, we must realize that there are four issues that must be dealt with in the near term, with the clear first priority being to contribute to the urgent task at hand - defeating the jihadists and preventing the creation of terrorist safe haven in Mali.
The other priorities that must dealt with are: working to support a legitimate government in Bamako that is empowered to negotiate with the Tauregs; holding successful negotiations between the Tauregs and Bamako around a realistic and credible autonomy for the north; and, marshaling enough international resources to address the pressing development needs of the country that led to the instability in the first place. It is only though this holistic approach, combining elements of hard and soft power, that there can be an enduring and peaceful solution.
Militarily, the French intervention has set in motion a series of actions that must be dealt with immediately. A robust regional force must be prepared for a mobile enemy who has better control of the terrain and chooses targets of opportunity to its advantage, hence the attack on the gas facility at In Amenas in Algeria.
Anyone who believes that AQIM and its various terrorist and criminal allies in the Sahel can be easily defeated is in for a rude shock. The kind of bloody operation at In Amenas is very likely to be repeated elsewhere in a region where few states are able to control their borders or possess sufficient military capability to effectively prevent or resist such attacks.
Military actions will create a breathing space to do what is further needed: simultaneously address long-standing economic, political, and cultural issues; negotiate with the Tuaregs and others on a realistic and credible autonomy in northern Mali; bolster foreign assistance programs focusing on nutrition/food supplies, healthcare, and potable water; and expand the training programs for military and security personnel of the Malian government to give them technical and professional training.
The region must also confront the enormous amount of narcotics arriving from South America and being smuggled through this vast under governed space in the Sahel, and are a source of revenue for terrorists.
We cannot say we will deny al-Qaeda a safe haven anywhere unless we are prepared to demonstrate in concrete terms what this commitment means. The Sahel is under attack and U.S. and regional allies must engage and support a long term multi-pronged campaign that will defeat the jihadists and create functioning regional institutions to prevent this from happening again.
Edward M. Gabriel is the former U.S. ambassador to Morocco, 1997 to 2001, and currently advises the government of Morocco.