The French liberation of northern Mali from embedded Islamists finally has put Mali on everyone's radar screen.
In the House Committee on Foreign Affairs last week, Ambassador Johnnie Carson, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, testified about the crisis in the West African nation and what the U.S. and other countries should do.
Mr. Carson noted that the "crisis is one of the most difficult, complex and urgent problems West Africa has faced in decades." He further noted: "The March 2012 coup and subsequent loss of northern Mali to Islamic extremists demonstrates all too clearly how quickly terrorists prey upon fragile states," referring to the presence of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
The U.S. could have subdued the AQIM in 2003 when its fighters fled Algeria to Mali's northern frontier region, which has become a safe haven for al Qaeda-linked Islamists from Mauritania, Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Somalia and as far away as Pakistan and Afghanistan. The U.S. knew that northern Mali was becoming a breeding ground for these terrorists; the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative training program was launched in Mali in 2005. Two years later, special operations forces carried out additional training, and U.S. Africa Command considered setting up a base there. An ongoing program would have reduced the presence of the Islamists.
Mali had been a stable democracy for almost 20 years. With the overthrow of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, large caches of weapons reached Tuareg rebels and Islamists able to outgun the Malian army, which led to the military coup a year ago. Afterward, legal restrictions prohibited the U.S. from providing any assistance except for humanitarian aid. Since then, Islamists have instituted Shariah law and undertaken atrocities in several northern towns, causing almost 500,000 Malians to flee to neighboring countries.
Since the U.S.-backed NATO incursion into Libya, large caches of weapons have fallen into the hands of the AQIM, Ansar Dine, and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, all active in Mali. These Islamists were involved in the attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, in September.
Instead of being proactive in helping Mali, then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stated: "Only a democratically elected government will have the legitimacy to achieve a negotiated political settlement in northern Mali, end the rebellion and restore the rule of law."
French President Francois Hollande was more pragmatic. "How can we organize elections when northern Mali is occupied by terrorist movements that don't apply democracy?" he asked. "Mali's territorial integrity should be restored as soon as possible and that any lost time would only complicate matters." He wanted swift military action in the former French colony, "with a rapid deployment of an African stabilization force."
Three U.N. resolutions were passed to deal with the Islamists in northern Mali; however, military action to subdue the AQIM and affiliated Islamists was on hold.
"The United Nations was developing a strategy on the Sahel that would look as a whole at issues including security and the promotion of democratic governance," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said.
African countries fearing Islamist infiltration said the U.N. should have supported Mali last April to prevent Islamists from taking over a large area of the country.
On Jan. 10, AQIM and Ansar Dine advanced to Konna, a town 300 miles from Bamako, the Malian capital. President Dioncounda Traore asked Mr. Hollande to send military troops to help the Malian military retake the town. French and Malian troops, accompanied by soldiers from neighboring African countries, drove the Islamists from the northern towns of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu.
However, the Islamists have dispersed into the desert and rugged Adrar des Ifoghas Mountains. The concern now is that if the Islamists are not subdued they will return. To restore Mali's territorial integrity, the Islamist insurgents must be defeated. The U.S. and the European Union's training mission need to prepare African military forces to stay for an indefinite period in northern Mali. The French will need to stay until the July elections, which will bring about the democratic governance.
Mali's political road map for national reconciliation should begin with discussions involving the interim government and the moderate northern tribes that are not aligned with the more fundamentalist Ansar Dine Islamists, who want to rule under Shariah law.
At the hearing, several members of the Foreign Affairs Committee asked why Mali was important to U.S. interests. Mr. Carson succinctly explained that Mali's security was important to our national security interests -- especially since AQIM and affiliated Islamists are spreading across the Sahel region.
John Price is a former U.S. ambassador to Comoros, Mauritius and the Seychelles islands. He currently serves as a resident scholar at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics. He is the author of the book "When the White House Calls" and regularly writes commentaries on Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.