J. Peter Pham is director of the Atlantic Council's Michael S. Ansari Africa Center.
Last Friday the United Nations Security Council bought itself a little more time to figure out what to do about the deteriorating political, security, and humanitarian situation in Mali by unanimously voting to give regional leaders 45 days to come up with a detailed plan that the council can review. If Resolution 2071 is not destined to be recorded as much of a milestone, it is understandable insofar as there are no easy solutions to the crisis affecting the West African nation and threatening to engulf the entire Sahel.
In a matter of months, Mali has gone from being one of the region's rare stable democracies to a failed state struggling for its very survival amid the simultaneous challenges of a separatist insurrection, a military coup, and a devastating drought—all compounded by the takeover of a territory the size of Texas by al Qaeda's local affiliate and various extremists allies.
Since late last year, Mali has faced an uprising by Tuareg nomads seeking to create their own state, dubbed "Azawad," out of the three northernmost provinces, Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu. Tuareg revolts over political and economic grievances are not unknown, but what was new was that this time the dissidents of the Mouvement National pour la Libération de l'Azawad, or MNLA, were reinforced by battle-hardened ethnic kin who returned from mercenary service for the late Muammar Qadhafi Libya and brought with them heavy armaments looted from Libyan arsenals.
The 7,000-strong Malian army fared poorly against the rebels, sparking complaints from soldiers that they were being sent into battle without adequate weapons and supplies. The press took up the criticism of the government's incompetence and corruption as did demonstrators, some violent, in the streets of the capital of Bamako. (The accusations are hard to dispute given how, in recent years, Mali's ranking on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index plummeted from 77th to 118th out of 182 countries surveyed.) In March, one of the protests by low-ranking soldiers spiraled out of control and, before anyone knew what had happened, the country's elected government had been overthrown.
The coup hastened the collapse of the Malian state. Taking advantage of the junta's diplomatic isolation amid universal condemnation of the coup and the subsequent cut-off of military assistance to the Malian military, MNLA forces, joined by fighters from Ansar Dine ("Defenders of the Faith"), a local Islamist militant group close ties to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, seized control of the three northern provinces and, in early April, proclaimed their "independence." Since then, the breakaway region has become a magnet for violent extremist groups from across the Sahel, including AQIM; the AQIM offshoot Jamaat Tawhid wal Jihad fi Garbi Ifriqiya ("Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa," usually known by its French acronym MUJAO); and various Nigerian and other Islamists. Together, these extremists have imposed their own brand of religion on the local populace, banning alcohol consumption, smoking, music, and other "un-Islamic" behavior, initiating brutal hudud punishments like floggings and amputations, and razing shrines and monuments deemed shirk ("idolatrous"), including half a dozen World Heritage sites in Timbuktu. Extremist control of northern Mali has alarmed neighboring countries and Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou has warned that foreign jihadists were flocking to the region and establishing training camps. Moreover, international law enforcement agencies have expressed concern about burgeoning volume of Europe-bound drug and other trafficking which the militants have permitted through the areas they control.
It gets worse: The Sahel is suffering through its third drought in a decade and United Nations officials estimate that some 18 million people across the region face a severe food shortage. Exacerbating the situation is the ongoing conflict in Mali, where 3.5 million people face hunger, including some 500,000 who are also internally displaced. More than a quarter of a million of other Malians have crossed the country's borders and taken refuge in neighboring countries which are already stressed by their own food insecurity.
All of this leaves the international community in a bit of a bind. On the one hand, irrespective of the frustrations keenly felt by many Malians, both civilians and military, over the previous government's corruption and its (mis)handling of the Tuareg rebellion, the overthrow of constitutional order is a terrible precedent that, quite correctly, had to be condemned and the junta shunned. However, the interim civilian-led government installed through the good offices of the African Union and the subregional Economic Community of West African States is deeply unpopular with ordinary Malians and need to be replaced by a more legitimate arrangement. On the other hand, unless decisive action is undertaken quickly to dislodge them, the extremists are likely to consolidate their hold on the north and, in the process, create a safe haven for terrorists, extremists, criminals, and other agents of destabilization from across the Maghreb and the Sahel—a concern expressed by both senior U.S. administration officials and their European counterparts, especially since the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi focused attention on the proliferation of armed groups across the region.
Thus the dilemma: One simply may not have the luxury of deferring the reckoning with the security threat until the political issues can be resolved and elections organized, but no military solution is likely to work that fails to address the political dimensions of the crisis. In something of a reversal of roles, last week saw America's chief diplomat on Africa, Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson, making the former point, while the head of the United States Africa Command, Gen. Carter F. Ham, argued the latter. The careful, strategic sequencing of steps going forward will be the key to any viable plan to sustainably resolve a complex challenge that grows more ominous each day.