If Mali feels somewhat far away or less than important, consider this: Northern Mali is currently the largest al Qaeda-controlled space in the world, an area a little larger than France itself. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has warned that Mali could become a “permanent haven for terrorists and organized criminal networks.” In December, Gen. Carter F. Ham, commander of the U.S. Africa Command, warned that al Qaeda was using northern Mali as a training center and base for recruiting across Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. Jihadists operating in northern Mali have been linked to Boko Haram, the violent Islamist group based in northern Nigeria, and to Ansar al-Sharia, a group in Libya which has been linked to the attack on the U.S. consulate at Benghazi that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Max Fisher provides more details on the rebels:
The ones who declared that northern Mali is now an independent state? They’re called the Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, or the MNLA, and they’re considered relatively secular. But not long after they announced their independence, extremists within their own movement started to emerge. Now the MNLA has been marginalized within its own rebellion, largely replaced by two breakaway Islamist groups: Ansar Dine and the dramatically named “Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa,” also known as MOJWA. Ansar Dine, the better-known of the two, has recruited Arab fighters from a group that might sound familiar: al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
The link between Ansar Dine and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is not totally clear. Also unclear is their link to the “central” al-Qaeda organization better known to Americans. But they are all cruel, imposing extreme social restrictions and barbaric punishments on, for example, a woman who served a glass of water to a man.
Alexis Okeowo considers the role of France, which is fighting rebels on behalf of the Mali government:
France wants this to end with a stable government in Bamako and the eradication of terrorist groups in the north. But the French now concede that they underestimated the strength of their opponents, and the government, which initially said that it would only provide air support, has now announced that it would send ground troops and triple the size of its deployment, to twenty-five hundred personnel. Soon, the government may have to deal with a populace that’s unhappy with the idea of sending its soldiers to risk their lives fighting in an unfamiliar area that’s larger even than Afghanistan.
Greenwald worries about blowback:
[W]estern bombing of Muslims in yet another country will obviously provoke even more anti-western sentiment, the fuel of terrorism. Already, as the Guardian reports, French fighter jets in Mali have killed “at least 11 civilians including three children”. France’s long history of colonialization in Mali only exacerbates the inevitable anger. Back in December, after the UN Security Council authorized the intervention in Mali, Amnesty International’s researcher on West Africa, Salvatore Saguès, warned: “An international armed intervention is likely to increase the scale of human rights violations we are already seeing in this conflict.”
Simon Tisdall argues that America should stay out of the conflict:
[T]here is a clear danger that an expanding war in Mali could start a wave of new attacks on “soft” western targets similar to that in southern Algeria, and that increased western intervention in the region will transform extremist groups that had only local importance into potent trans-national threats.
Drezner pushes back:
[I]nitial reporting suggests that the U.S. is about to blunder into another far-flung overseas operation in no small part caused by prior U.S. f**k-ups with no end in sight and a hostile population on the ground. Right? Not so fast. Contrary to the claims of some militant anti-interventionists,the U.S. counter-terrorism policy didn’t cause the problems in Mali. And, indeed, based on this survey of Northern Mali villagers conducted by some kick-ass political scientists early last year, it would seem that the locals would welcome further U.S. involvement, particularly on the humanitarian side of the equation.
France needs US help, and the US should give it. Just as France’s Libyan intervention failed because the country ran out of military supplies, France’s Malian adventure could collapse without our support. But the situation nevertheless raises alarms. The last time the US supported a major French military operation was the infamous Battle of Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam during the First Indochina War. The French were completely routed, and the US launched the Vietnam War soon after. We hope Mali doesn’t turn into another Dien Bien Phu.
(Photo: A French soldier from the 21st Rima prepares a Famas machine gun, at the Malian army 101 airbase where French troops are stationed, on January 18, 2013, near Bamako. France now has 1,800 troops on the ground in Mali, inching closer to the goal of 2,500 it plans to deploy in its African former colony, Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said today. That was 400 more than a day earlier, said the minister as he met with French special forces in the western port of Lorient. The troops have been sent to help the Malian army regain control of the north from Islamist groups. By Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images)