The U.S. role in war-torn Mali

January 15, 2013 

RALEIGH

The following editorial appeared in The New York Times on Tuesday:

France’s initial airstrikes have, so far, failed to halt the southward advance of Islamist rebels in Mali. Containing these militias, which are sheltering international terrorist groups, and the threat they pose to West Africa and the wider world is essential. But President François Hollande should resist beginning a ground assault, which would almost certainly turn into a protracted counterinsurgency campaign that France should not take on and cannot afford.

The challenge of dislodging the rebels from the northern zone must remain with Mali’s Army and its West African allies. France, along with the United States and others, should intensify efforts to prepare them for this fight, as authorized by a U.N. Security Council resolution last month. The resolution set a timetable for an African ground force to be deployed by this fall, but, given the current fighting, that may need to be accelerated.

Until the Malian forces are able to retake the north, bloodthirsty militias like Ansar Dine and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb will continue terrorizing the people of that region with punishments like amputation and stoning. They seized power in the vast desert region the size of France last June after Mali’s American-trained Army overthrew the democratically elected government and threw the country into chaos.

Yet it is this same Malian Army, with military help from West African neighbors like Nigeria, Niger and Mauritania, and training, weapons and logistical support from France, the United States and others, that will have to assume responsibility for reintegrating the north.

American military training programs have had an unhappy history in Mali, as reported in The Times on Monday. Years of effort, costing hundreds of millions of dollars, turned to disaster when American-trained units defected with their weapons and joined an ethnic Tuareg rebellion that preceded the Islamist takeover.

One American-trained Malian officer who did not defect led the coup that overthrew President Amadou Toumani Touré last March, further weakening the country’s defenses. Mali’s Army has also been cited by human rights groups for torturing detainees.

The Pentagon’s top commander for Africa, Gen. Carter Ham, acknowledges that the actions of Mali’s Army last spring were “wholly unacceptable.” The lessons of this debacle must be absorbed and perhaps applied elsewhere as well.

Still, this is no time to walk away from Mali. American training programs there should be strengthened, with greater emphasis on human rights and civilian supremacy. In the meantime, France’s airstrikes, responding to urgent pleas from Mali’s government, make sense. But they are no substitute for what Mali must now do for itself.

The New York Times

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