Should the US intervene?
Terror! When Americans are confronted with this word, the first thought that comes to mind may be Osama bin Laden. The word elicits visions of the World Trade Center, or possibly the war in Afghanistan. But the image of a Tuareg nomad fighting the government’s troops, who are also fighting Muslim groups for control of the Sahara desert, is at least the two hundred and eighty-fourth thing that the average American thinks of upon hearing the word terror. However, the latest development in the global war on terror, which the United States has irrationally devoted itself to since the 9/11 attacks, comes in the form of the country of Mali.
The 482,077 square mile nation state of Mali is located in western Africa. The northern section is a largely barren part of the Sahara desert that is home to approximately 1.3 million people, while the southern section has four major rivers and supports another 13.2 million people. The dichotomy of the land and resources created tensions between the people of the north and south for decades. Those tensions boiled over last April as Tuaregs ousted control of the north of Mali from the Malian government in an attempt to form the state of Azawad.
The success of the Tuaregs, however, did not go unnoticed. Other groups took advantage of the ensuing chaos to try and seize control of not just the north, but also the rest of Mali. In May, the Saharan branch of Al-Qaeda, Ansar Dine and Ansar al-Shariah succeeded in fighting off the Tuareg rebels in an attempt to implement radical Islamic law across all of Mali and create a haven for terrorist activity.
Last month, Islamist forces were within a nine-hour drive of the capital of Bamako as the president of Mali called in for military assistance from France, who responded with air strikes and 4,000 troops. Despite a lack of help, the French have succeeded in reclaiming much of the government’s land, although the situation is not totally resolved.
The United States has been notorious for combating terrorism across the world in the 21st century. Prompted by the 9/11 attacks, its efforts at counterterrorism have dragged Americans across two hemispheres and into two wars. The US was like a high school graduate who had just received Dr. Suess’s Oh the Places You’ll Go and actually did something with its advice. Oh the places we went! Afghanistan, Yemen, Colombia, Iraq, Haiti, Somalia and Libya, just to name a few in the past decade alone. It’s only reasonable for the US to be involved with Mali, since Northern Mali has become a staging area for terrorism across western Africa and southern Europe.
And that’s exactly what the US Military is trying to prevent (or is it?).
Mali seems ripe for US intervention. The country was an African model for democracy that is experiencing a rough patch. This used to be all the US needed to sweep in and “save” previous governments such as Guatemala, Chile or Iran. But as of yet all the US has done is give intelligence, transport and mid-air refueling to France. For such a stickler on terror, the United States has seemed to calm down when all that is at risk in Mali is the unification of a country and the destruction of a hotbed of terror activity. There are no oil reserves or highly strategic locations, like in Libya or Iraq.
If anything, direct US involvement in Mali would be a boost to the military’s confidence. After almost eleven years of war in Afghanistan, the US has little to show for its efforts besides 2,000 dead American soldiers and massive defense expenditures leaving trillions of dollars in debt. The US needs to produce some results from its adventures across the world. It would not be starting a war over “possible” weapons of mass destruction but for a tangible goal: the unification of Mali. More importantly for the War on Terror, it would facilitate the expulsion of terrorists from its borders. It would not be like the current war in Afghanistan, simply because of its topography. There are not that many places to hide in the desert and the several cities that exist in the north. Many of these cities, like Timbuktu, are small, not much larger than the population of Ithaca NY. The experiences gained in Afghanistan in counterterrorism would be extremely productive in empty deserts and cities with a population of only 30,000 and not 3.2 million as in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Despite our ability to completely dominate the crisis in Mali, the people of the United States (not to mention the economy of the United States) would not benefit from direct American involvement. We have learned our lesson from our travels around the world. As previous incursions have taught us, things don’t always go as planned, (e.g. Afghanistan, Iraq, Chile, etc.). We could easily end up fostering terrorism instead of fighting it. But give us a few years and we may make it to Timbuktu, too.
Max Rankin is a freshman exploratory major who does not like green eggs and ham. Email him at mrankin1[at]ithaca.edu.