French and Malian military forces continue their successful push through northern Mali, as resistance has seemed to melt into the mountains and deserts at their approach. But the battle to keep the north African country from becoming a training base for Islamic militants has just begun, and includes a role for the United States.
Militants linked to al-Qaeda have fled, but they’re not defeated. The tough chore will come later, when more than 8,000 troops from several African nations will have to take the lead in helping Mali’s military root the militants out of their hideouts in the rugged mountains near the country’s border with Algeria.
About 2,000 African troops, including forces from Chad trained in desert warfare, are on the ground in Mali. French officials say they plan to leave Mali soon, but it could take months for the rest of the African troops to deploy.
International donors led by the United States, Japan, and the European Union have pledged $455 million to Mali. Some or all of that could go to pay for the intervention by African troops, which is expected to cost $1 billion.
Among the retaken cities is Timbuktu, once an important stop on Saharan caravan routes and a major seat of Islamic learning. It was overrun last year by the Islamic militants, who reportedly destroyed historic sites and burned a library that held priceless ancient manuscripts.
The militants left behind tales of brutal punishments inflicted on men who were caught smoking and women who went unveiled in public. Harsh enforcement of Sharia law meant that as many as 20 people accused of theft lost a hand or foot.
Care must be taken to prevent a backlash against Islamist sympathizers. Some Malian civilians and soldiers are accused of human-rights violations against people suspected of working with the now-departed militants.
More important from a western perspective is preventing north Mali from becoming a training ground for terrorists who could strike from the oil fields of Nigeria to the streets of Paris. In Mali, the United States and European countries have been transporting troops and supplies, providing logistical support, and sharing intelligence. They are not likely to become involved in the ground fighting, nor should they.
Still, a New York Times report that the U.S. military could place a drone base in northwest Africa, perhaps in Niger, is troubling. Military officials told the newspaper that the drones would be unarmed surveillance aircraft. But they did not rule out using armed drones against military targets in the future.
Missile strikes from drone aircraft in places such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen have become the Obama Administration’s preferred method to identify and eliminate potential threats to the United States. Yet questions remain about whether such targeted killings are legal, moral, or effective. They need to be answered before the program is expanded.
It’s not enough merely to drive the militants into hiding and leave the rest to Mali’s African neighbors. Mali needs development aid to create an environment that won’t be fertile soil for Islamists.
And Mali’s government should be encouraged to address the nationalist concerns of the country’s Tuareg minority. These are things the United States, and other countries, can do.