Washington, DC — Mali, only recently seen as a model African democracy, has crashed onto the stage of world attention, bringing formidable challenges for the international community. Whether to follow France’s bold lead with direct troop intervention; whether to provide intelligence, military or logistical aid; how to support Algeria’s diplomatic efforts – all are questions being debated by leaders at the United Nations, the African Union, the European Union and in capitals around the world.
In the United States, this discussion is happening against the backdrop of winding down the American engagement in Iraq, the planed withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, the deaths of the U.S. Ambassador to Libya and three others by Al Qaeda on September 11, 2012, and domestic debate about a proposed trimming of the Defense Department’s budget. There is a widespread sense that America’s appetite for the “war on terror” has decreased considerably.
It is understandable that the administration and the U.S. Congress are reluctant to become entangled in a small west African country with a population of 15.8 million. The prospect of bombs, drones and boots on the ground – at a cost of millions, perhaps billions of dollars – is not something Americans want to consider. Attention is on the Inauguration and the prospects for President Barack Obama’s second term, and how to lift the country out of its economic doldrums.
Avoiding conflict in Mali may seem the preferable option – but is it a realistic or intelligent one? United States officials say they share France’s goals in Mali but have ruled out sending troops. Others, fearing that any U.S. action could lead to a protracted engagement, argue for total non-engagement: no military support for Mali and no intelligence or logistical assistance for France.
This position might be plausible if the enemy were not Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda does not negotiate. It respects no rules of engagement. While debate on military intervention was underway at the U.N. Security Council, Islamic extremists were moving from the north of Mali to the central area – cutting off hands and killing and destroying communities and cultures. The political situation in northern and central Mali is highly confused, but there is no question that Al Qaeda is playing a significant role.
Mali was heading towards becoming ungovernable. The Malian army, despite counter-terrorism training, was getting trounced, and even the French are struggling against a well-armed, determined opponent. The humanitarian situation is serious and spilling into neighboring countries, with hundreds of thousands of people affected. The UN refugee agency predicts that that an additional 700,000 could be displaced internally or become refugees in the region, as the conflict continues.
In this situation, the United States has no choice but to support France’s military intervention. U.S. hostages in the remote Algerian gas field raid have already paid a price. It is in the U.S. national interest to support France as an ally, but also to re-stabilize Mali. It is necessary to prevent the establishment of a national base for terrorism that threatens the region, Europe and the United States itself. Since 9/11, there has been a bipartisan American concensus to pursue Al Quaeda where ever it exists. This is not the time to abandon that policy.
Bernadette Paolo is President and CEO of the Africa Society. Vivian Lowery Derryck is President and CEO of the Bridges Institute