The Mali Linchpin: Avoiding a New Afghanistan

France and its allies face a critical point in preventing yet another protracted war.

Malian soldiers move to secure the port in Gao, northern Mali, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013.
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The American forces' presence in the country that connects Mali with Nigeria will provide a critical linchpin in undermining the efforts of an increasingly spreading Islamic militancy. At least seven French citizens were kidnapped in Nigeria last week by Boko Haram, an Islamic extremist group with ties to AQIM.

"There are loose linkages between Boko Haram and AQIM," says Carson. "They're not broad, thick highways of linkage, but there are linkages between both of them."

The United States must do everything it can to work with governments in the region to counter these linkages, he says.

This nuanced approach to defeating al Qaeda is important to avoid a repeat of Afghanistan, says Pham.

Images of French troops rolling across the Malian deserts depict not a green and untested force, but battle-hardened veterans who have learned from more than a decade at war.

[ANALYSIS: Will Mali Become France's Afghanistan?]

"The rebels are about the same, and it's just as hot," said a French army captain and Afghanistan veteran to an embedded Wall Street Journal reporter somewhere outside the northern Mali city of Gao. "[Afghanistan] was a great experience – our soldiers have been in combat, and they're more confident."

Pham's concerns lie not with the rank-and-file troops who he says are clearly effective, but with the policy makers at the other end of the equation.

Without a legitimate government in Mali, "you're throwing your soldiers away in vain," he says. Those who helped overthrew the democratically elected government in Mali last year are derived from radicals who helped smuggle drugs to raise money, and in some cases were in business with the Islamist extremists, he says.

"In Mali, we're looking at a cast of characters who make [Afghanistan President Hamid] Karzai look like a paragon of democratic virtue," Pham adds.

"Right now it could go either way," he says. "The wrong foreign troops or the wrong Malian troops could easily send the population into the arms of the militants. On the other hand, a careful campaign using real lessons learned in Afghanistan, in the awakening in Iraq, you might tip it the other way."

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