France says it will eradicate the militant groups that took over the northern half of Mali last year and now threaten the southern half. That’s harder to do than to say, and the task would be better left to the other nations of west Africa.
Mali is a landlocked nation about the size of Texas. In the north, it extends deep into the Sahara Desert. In the south, it draws sustenance from the Niger River. Until last year, it boasted a 150-year history of effective government and two decades of peaceful elections.
Most of Mali’s 15.4 million people are poor: Per-capita gross domestic product is about $1,100, the CIA says. The 90-percent majority Muslim population practices a moderate form of Islam.
Last year, Tuareg nationalists made common cause with mercenaries returning from Libya and radical Islamic militants to form an independent state in the north. Some members of Mali’s American-trained military joined the rebels. Others, frustrated by a lack of support in the fight against the rebels, led a coup against the government in the capital of Bamako in the south.
Order was restored in the south, and a stalemate with the north ensued. As the United Nations and Mali’s neighbors dallied over how to respond, radicals in the rebel-held north began to impose Sharia law. Last week, the rebels took over two towns in central Mali and appeared poised to march on Bamako.
France’s president, Francois Hollande, decided that a west African haven for terrorists was unacceptable and ordered airstrikes against the rebels. The United States offered intelligence support. Western nations fear north Mali could become a base to train terrorists who could launch attacks in Africa and Europe.
Eleven other nations have pledged troops or other help. The idea is that African nations will provide most of the troops, while western nations contribute money, logistical support, and intelligence.
This week, French troops moved north from the capital to begin a ground offensive. France plans to triple the number of troops it has on the ground, to about 2,500.
Some 3,300 troops from Senegal, Niger, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and Guinea are expected to take over the offensive. But even if they’re deployed soon, they likely will be inexperienced, especially in desert operations, and it could be months before they are battle-ready.
Both France and the United States have a vital interest in the outcome. Thousands of French nationals live in west Africa, much of which was once part of France’s colonial empire. The United States has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to prevent al-Qaeda-like groups from gaining a foothold in the region.
This week, militants took dozens of foreigners, including several Americans, hostage in Algeria. The militants demanded an end to the French military operation in Mali. Some of the hostages were killed and the fate of others was unclear after an Algerian rescue attempt.
The situation cannot be resolved by Western intervention alone, no matter how well intended. France can’t afford a large, protracted struggle. And the United States is reluctant to engage in another ground war against a foe that can disappear into the local population — or the desert — at will.
So Mali and its neighbors, ready or not, must take responsibility for establishing order, protecting democracy, and opposing radicalism in west Africa. That, ultimately, is as it should be.