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U.S. assistance can head off extremists in Mali

- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 21, 2013

ANALYSIS/OPINION

By John Price

SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

A U.S. congressional delegation on Monday made a one-day visit to the Malian capital of Bamako. Headed by Sen. Christopher A. Coons, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Africa, the delegation included Sen. Johnny Isakson, Georgia Republican, and Democratic Reps. Karen Bass of California and Terri A. Sewell of Alabama.

"The United States is likely to eventually resume direct support for Mali's military, but only after full restoration of democracy through elections," Mr. Coons, Delaware Democrat, said, according to the Reuters news agency.

He noted that "U.S. law prohibited direct assistance to Mali's armed forces" after President Amadou Toumani Toure was overthrown in a military coup in March, but U.S. military aid will resume after democracy is fully restored.

"We are committed to ensuring support ... in the ongoing fight against extremism," Mr. Coons said.

The delegation's one-day visit to Mali was reminiscent of former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's 10-day visit to nine African countries in August. The common threads in Mrs. Clinton's remarks were the building blocks for democratic institutions, good governance, the rule of law and security. Mali was not on the itinerary and was barely mentioned.

Such short delegation visits are more about "face time" than learning about what is really happening inside a country.

An article on the allAfrica.com news website in August noted that Mali's security issues were briefly alluded to by Mrs. Clinton, but that no concrete solution to stabilize Mali was offered. The situation in northern Mali had only become worse, with almost 500,000 refugees fleeing to camps in Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Niger.

On my visit to Mali in September, government and military leaders discussed their need for immediate action, since Islamists controlled most of Mali's northern towns and had instituted Shariah law. They were perpetrating many atrocities, and destroying ancient Sufi shrines. There was also a great need for humanitarian assistance for the displaced refugees.

The U.N. and U.S. should have supported military action in April, when the Islamists could have been more readily subdued. Almost a year later, the Islamists were expanding their reach into the south.

On Jan. 10, the al Qaeda-linked Islamists advanced to the town of Konna, just 300 miles from Bamako. Dioncounda Traore, Mali's interim president, asked French President Francois Hollande for help to support the Malian military. Within hours, French troops arrived from neighboring Chad, and by the following day the insurgents were driven from Konna.

Additional troops arrived from several Economic Community of West African States and other African countries to help subdue the Islamists embedded in the northern towns of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal.

I will be visiting Mali next month to meet with interim government leaders in Bamako, and Tuareg and Arab leaders in several northern towns in order to ascertain the current situation in the region. I also want to understand what preparations are being made for the presidential election in July and the unifying National Reconciliation Conference, which is of utmost importance for Mali's success as a democratic state.

Malian leaders who I talked with want the French troops to stay until after the elections for security, and to make sure democratic institutions are in place.

The U.S. needs to participate in training the African troops, to prepare them for an extended security role in Mali, in the event the Islamists return.

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.

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