Washington — While the Obama administration supports the ongoing French and African military operations in Mali, neutralizing the terrorist threat in the Sahel region will be a long-term effort and will require addressing the underlying causes of violence and instability, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson told U.S. lawmakers.
In his prepared testimony for the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs in Washington February 14, Carson said the evolving crisis in the country, which saw a military coup in March 2012 and a takeover of its northern territory by Islamic extremists, has been "one of the most difficult, complex and urgent problems" West Africa has faced in recent decades.
"Mali's problems reflect the fragility of governance in the region, the lack of economic development -- especially in northern Mali -- the absence of meaningful opportunities for people to engage with their governments, and the widespread desperation that exists in an unforgiving, arid region with chronic food insecurity," Carson said.
The country's troubles also demonstrate how these conditions can be quickly exploited by terrorist groups such as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, he said.
To end the long cycle of violence in Mali, the underlying challenges behind the violence must be addressed "comprehensively and simultaneously," he said.
Specifically, Carson pointed to al-Qaida's continued presence in northern Mali, the need to restore democracy and to address the humanitarian crisis in the country, and the need to begin negotiations with "northern groups that renounce terrorism and recognize the unity of the Malian state."
Northern indigenous populations, such as the Tuaregs, have "legitimate political, social and economic grievances," he said. Nonextremist groups, Malian authorities and their regional and international partners need to begin "a serious and sustained effort" to address those grievances.
Carson applauded the political road map that was unanimously approved by the Malian National Assembly on January 29, which aims to restore democracy and promote national reconciliation, and to hold a presidential election by July 31.
The road map supports long-term negotiations and its dialogue with "those groups that renounce armed struggle, adhere to the principles of democracy and the rule of law, and accept without condition Mali's territorial integrity," Carson said. He urged Malian authorities to follow through on addressing the political and economic needs of the north.
More than 400,000 people became refugees or were internally displaced as a result of the conflict, and the Obama administration has responded with more than $120 million in humanitarian assistance to Mali, as part of its $467 million for aid in the Sahel region during 2012 and 2013, Carson said.
The State Department also intends to provide up to $96 million in 2013 to support the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA). From the beginning of the French and African military operations to drive extremists out of northern Mali, the United States has also supported security efforts by sharing intelligence information, providing airlift support for personnel and supplies, and aerial refueling, Carson said.
"We welcome the continued progress of French and African operations in Mali. And we agree that the challenge now is to stabilize northern Mali and protect civilians and human rights while maintaining pressure on terrorist groups and advancing the political track," he said.
Carson warned that while the French and African intervention has created a valuable opportunity to bring about political stability, "any military success will be fleeting without a democratic and credible government that is responsive to the needs of all Malians."
"We will work to ensure that military success can be translated into long-term stability by encouraging expedited elections, marginalizing the military junta, holding perpetrators accountable for human rights abuses, and supporting a national reconciliation process that addresses the long-standing and legitimate grievances of northern populations," he said.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs Amanda Dory told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that as the outside military intervention in Mali transitions to a stabilization mission, "it will be critical that the international community help Mali craft a sustainable, African-led solution that addresses legitimate grievances, maintains pressure on extremists and ensures protection of civilians."
Dory said "there is no consideration" of deploying U.S. combat forces in Mali, but U.S. military personnel are working to build the capacity of countries in North and West Africa to counter shared threats and provide security for their people through training in military professionalism, ethics and human rights.
"Our model of building the capacity of African partners to take responsibility for their own security remains appropriate, and has been successful with other states in the region. We have built strong security relationships with Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and elsewhere, and believe that persistent engagement with these partners will continue to yield benefits," she said.