Michael P. Noonan is the Director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Radical Islamists aligned with local actors take over a large swath of a country. They desecrate world heritage sites and impose strict interpretations of Sharia law. Safe haven and training grounds are used by terrorists to control or coordinate attacks on international targets, including highly symbolic American targets, from what might be termed "geopolitical dead space."
While this easily describes Afghanistan in the run up to the 9/11 attacks it also seems to increasingly describe the current situation in Mali. Yet Afghanistan was mentioned 29 times during the Barack Obama-Mitt Romney presidential foreign policy debate and Mali was mentioned just four times. For a nation weary of messy conflicts fought amongst the people in far off lands this is understandable—but being understandable does not mean that the situation can be left to fester.
Fellow World Report bloggers J. Peter Pham and Robert Nolan have recently posted about Mali. To recap the situation: Tuareg separatist mercenaries in the employ of Lt. Col. Muammar Qadhafi returned to Mali armed with heavy weapons looted from Libyan armories. These actors, aligned with local Islamists (Ansar Dine) and members of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, known as AQIM (pronounced Ah-kim), then took over the north of the country in early 2012—later on the Islamists would then turn on the Tuareg. The Malian military, alarmed with the situation, then launched a coup in March 2012.
The situation on the ground has continued to deteriorate. Furthermore reports suggest that signals intelligence intercepted after the attack on the U.S. consulate and CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya which killed the ambassador and three other Americans, were in contact with AQIM. Meanwhile the junta in the south has been readmitted to the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has been planning to send a modest intervention force, centered around a Nigerian contingent of troops, to help Mali re-establish control in the north. European nations, fearful of replays of attacks such as the Madrid train bombings, have also pledged military support. "There is a willingness among member states to put boots on the ground—but only on the parade ground," said one of European Union official.
What role, if any, should the United States play if there is an international intervention? Any intervention in Mali will be complicated and messy. The United States should take as small and ceremonial a public role as possible—e.g., transportation, logistical support, and intelligence sharing. Behind the scenes, however, there might be more room for selective and covert or clandestine unconventional warfare to disrupt the AQIM network in northern Mali. The key is to keep this small, limited, and to resist widening support or increasing an American presence in Mali. For one reason, we simply cannot afford it and secondly, we should probably draw a lesson from Afghanistan in that perhaps it was a mistake to grow our presence there to even the small numbers we did in the mid-2000s. We should let the local governments (and hopefully Mali will return to democratic governance by 2013) handle the majority of the concerns on the ground while we patiently and methodically go after the command and control and training infrastructure that likely aided or abetted the Benghazi attacks and help to impede future ones.