Why the world is preparing for war in Mali

Regional volatility, imported weapons from Libya, and a poisonous religious ideology have turned the West African nation into a new Afghanistan

D.B. Grady

According to the commander of U.S. Africa Command, al Qaeda is operating terrorist training camps in Mali, a land-locked country in West Africa. In a recent speech to the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University, Gen. Carter F. Ham described the ascendant al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, saying that this al Qaeda affiliate has been recruiting and providing support to militant Islamic organizations in the region.

Mali was once considered to be among the few bright spots on an often-grim continent, but over the last decade it has seen a gradual erosion of stability. Earlier this year, a military junta overthrew the democratically elected government, and in April, separatists in the north declared independence. Islamic rebels soon rejected the idea of secession, however, in favor of imposing sharia law in Mali. Areas where sharia fell into practice soon saw the medieval brutality that typically follows its implementation. The general volatility of the region, coupled with weapons imported from Libya and a poisonous religious ideology, have rendered Mali — which is roughly twice the size of Texas (with half the population) — a new Afghanistan.

This has not gone unnoticed. Last month, the United Nations began a process by which an African security force might bring order to the north. Though no funds were appropriated for the cause, recommendations were made for other countries to provide training and intelligence for such forces. The United States is well positioned to do just such a thing.

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Operation Enduring Freedom is generally associated only with Afghanistan, but is, in fact, a global mission. Mali falls under OEF-Trans Sahara, and U.S. forces have already deployed humanitarian aid packages and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms in the region. (Congress has written a $500 million check for ongoing operations.) It’s almost certain that many elements of an African expeditionary force deployed to take back the north will have already received training from U.S. special operations forces.

Every year, multinational "Flintlock" exercises are held in Africa and rotated between countries. The goal of the training is to build up indigenous counterterrorism capabilities. Flintlock 2012, slated to be held in Mali, was postponed because of the deteriorating situation. A smaller exercise called Atlas Accord was held instead.

Since the onset of the war on terror, Green Berets from the 3rd, 10th, and 19th Special Forces Group (Airborne) have conducted much of the training in the region. And U.S. Africa Command was stood up in 2008 to direct military operations on the continent. With its activation has come a massive increase in the American footprint, and its first combat engagement — Operation Odyssey Dawn, which enacted a no-fly zone over Libya. The new Defense Clandestine Service, which is part of the Defense Intelligence Agency, is expected to play a large role in human intelligence and espionage in Africa.

It has long been known that the elite Joint Special Operations Command is engaged in special reconnaissance and direct action missions across all of Africa. Additional evidence of a presence in Mali came in July, when three U.S. soldiers were killed there in a car crash. One of the soldiers belonged to the Intelligence and Security Command, a highly secretive signals intelligence unit that works closely with JSOC. (WikiLeaks had earlier revealed plans to embed commandos with the Malian ground forces.)

Clearly, a U.S. force is needed if order is ever to be restored in Mali. Perhaps the most obvious sign of just how hopelessly outmatched the Malian army is versus al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb came in 2009, when terrorists inflicted the worst casualties seen by the military since 1991. U.S. soldiers from 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) later investigated a July 4 ambush that turned into a debacle for Mali. "When the survivors of the July 4 ambush were asked why they had left behind so many vehicles to be captured by AQIM, they said the drivers had been killed and no one else in the unit knew how to drive. When asked why they had not used a heavy machine gun, they answered that the gunner who knew how to operate the weapon had also been killed, and he was the only one who knew what to do."

Today, militias comprised of young men and women are attempting to pick up where the army of Mali has failed. This makeshift fighting force has a much greater interest in defeating the terrorist threat in the region than does its professional soldiering counterpart. Sharia has obliterated a way of life, brutalized a populace, rendered tourist-friendly areas such as Timbuktu inhospitable, and even razed ancient shrines and artifacts for insufficient deference to Allah. Last month in Timbuktu, six young people from ages 16 to 22 were each given 100 lashes for conversing while unmarried. Such daily barbarism is more than sufficient motivation to pick up a rifle and help restore sanity to a war-torn land. If recent actions of the U.N. and U.S. are any indication, they will soon have much-needed help.

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David W. Brown

David W. Brown is coauthor of Deep State (John Wiley & Sons, 2013) and The Command (Wiley, 2012). He is a regular contributor to TheWeek.com, Vox, The Atlantic, and mental_floss. He can be found online here.