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Drugs, Terrorists, Locusts: What to Do about Mali?

A prize to anyone who can figure out what we should do about Mali.

In the north, dangerous terrorists are forming a breakaway state that may become a source for jihadi terrorism, drug smuggling, and general disorder throughout the region. In the south, armed thugs are beating up journalists and wrecking what’s left of the country. Instead of combating the jihadists who have overtaken the north, the military in the south is mainly dedicating itself to mercilessly torturing real or imagined enemies in the territory it still controls. The government, so-called, appears to be completely incompetent.

Johnnie Carson, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, doesn’t have many viable or attractive options in his policy toolbox. As he explains to The New York Times:

“Over time, it will be necessary to go in and root out the terrorist elements, but any operations in the north must be well planned, well organized, well resourced and well thought out … It must have a significant Malian military component in front.”

Carson enunciates a principle that perhaps should have been at the forefront of Washington’s thinking before the Libyan intervention: “It’s important that anything done be thought out and not precipitous.”

So, what should we do? Do we:

a) Overthrow the bad government, install a good one, help Mali build an actual working army that ultimately moves against the terrorists in the north? And where exactly do we find the members of the “good government” we plan to install? And just how many months or years are we talking? And how many billions?

b) Do nothing while northern Mali turns into an al-Qaeda ammo warehouse and training ground?

c) Try to find some member of the current government or military who is slightly more competent and less horrible than the others, help him become a strongman, and work with him to get rid of the northern terrorists, no matter how much of our aid money he steals and how many reporters and human rights activists he feeds to the crocodiles?

d) Forget about the south and just send in the drones?

e) Try to get the neighbors, or maybe the French, to clean up the mess?

Please send your suggestions to Johnnie Carson, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Department of State, Washington, DC.

And hurry.

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  • Anthony

    What a mess…. And to think this is a consequence of our international stated desire to preclude Libyan deaths in the tens of thousands – although the Syrian crisis appears potentially more lethal. By the way WRM, I select a of your four options, with stipulations if permitted.

  • Andrew Allison

    How many Iraqs, Afghanistans, Libyas (cause of the troubles in Mali), etc., will it take to learn not to intervene at all. CSM has a good analysis at

  • Withywindle

    So doesn’t matter.

  • Dutch 1960

    One of mankind’s conceits is that there are always good answers to the questions–prescriptions for the problems.

    Good luck on this one. With extended family members born and resident in Mali, I can tell you that the local reaction is the French way (as France colonized and dominated the region for so long): throw your hands in the air and say “so sad, what can be done?”. Then passively wait it out until things play out as they do. The forces involved in playing it out will be external (Al queda, the Tuoraegs, possibly France or the US, and maybe China). The locals are along for the ride and will bend to whichever way the wind blows. That is how they got into this mess in the first place. The “coup” was an action of comically minimal proportions.

    Read VS Naipaul’s “A Bend in the River” for insight. The locals will mostly not be driven to take sides, but the very few, along with the outsiders who have moved in, will wreak havoc before it is over.

  • Government Drone

    Would have staying out of Libya have made things any better for Mali? Khaddafi used a fair number of Tuareg men as mercenaries to fight off the rebellion. Absent any major Western intervention in Libya that rebellion would’ve lasted longer, regardless of the eventual winner. Which means there would have been very likely MORE armed Tuareg running around, & hardly likely to be more loyal to the Malian government.

    The best we could’ve hoped for in that situation would be a northern Mali rebellion that felt strong enough not to invite Islamists in to “help”. And which could have still fallen to them anyway.

    That’s my opinion, at any rate. YMMV.

  • Brennan Kraxberger

    State failure does not occur overnight, and it has not in Mali. Likewise, the unintended consequence of Gaddafi’s fall is only a proximate cause of Mali’s collapse.

    Agreed, there are no good options now. Part of the solution, though, may lie in helping locals oust Ansar Dine. Much of the Islamists’ agenda is not popular with northerners.

  • Jim.

    How come so many of these articles on Mali and Libya don’t mention Algeria? It’s not like Libya borders Mali.

  • Mr Three Names

    I select the choice you have push polled (e).

    The Malians are too weak take back the north alone. Niger and Nigeria are motivated and the US is coming to the conclusion an Al Qaeda state in North Mali is not desirable. The French are leading this in many ways, which would normally be a cause to doubt but the French are not to be trifled with in this part of the world, remember Operation Licorne? The UNSC will be presided over by the French in August, a vote of force will be on the agenda. Now, how will the Russians and Chinese vote?

  • Kris

    Jim@7: Amen.

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