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.
I've warned about the dangers of a metastasizing al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, known as AQIM, in Mali in this space before—see here and here. Unfortunately this is probably an issue we will hear more about in 2013.
For instance, on Monday Rukmini Callimachi of the Associated Press wrote a long expose about the situation in northern Mali—an area roughly the size of Texas. She quotes Robert Fowler, a Canadian former United Nations diplomat held for 130 days as saying that, "Al-Qaida never owned Afghanistan…. They do own northern Mali." She also notes that there are widespread reports of AQIM and Ansar Dine fighters digging in and making significant defensive preparations in advance of a potential Economic Community Of West African States intervention.
Peter Tinti over at the World Politics Review (subscription or registration required) suggests that "the Obama administration is considering asking Congress to approve expanded authority to allow military operations in places such as Mali, Nigeria and Libya, where perceived threats to U.S. security are proliferating." Expanding such authorities should be done with only with exceeding care.
Once again, should the Economic Community Of West African States send in an intervention force to assist the government of Mali to retake the rebellious north and if the United States assists the organization in doing so we need to be very careful. As Afghanistan and Iraq and Libya have shown, it is very easy to get involved in such conflicts, but much more difficult to extricate ourselves from them. AQIM knows this and is counting on a slippery slope to pull as back in to a large and expensive commitment. We must keep our eyes on the prize. The only reason that the United States should get involved militarily in northern Mali is to help eradicate terrorists that wish us harm and that can meddle with us either globally or else cause major problems for us regionally. We mustn't lose sight of this objective. Furthermore, if this objective is too difficult to achieve by intervening within northern Mali then we should be patient enough to deal with threats flowing from there in a more piecemeal fashion.