The U.S.-backed NATO incursion into Libya in March 2011 was the catalyst that destabilized Mali and emboldened Islamists throughout the North African region of the Sahel.
France, the former colonial power in Mali, has pressed the U.N. Security Council to deploy an African stabilization force, noting that “Mali’s territorial integrity should be restored as soon as possible and that any lost time would only complicate matters.”
The U.S. position has been that “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.”
Meanwhile, Islamists have become more entrenched in northern Mali, a region the size of France.
On Jan. 10, Islamist forces advanced to the town of Konna, a distance of 300 miles from Bamako, the capital. President Dioncounda Traore asked France for military help, and French President Francois Hollande sent troops and aircraft immediately to underpin the Malian military and to retake the town.
Additional troops from France and neighboring African countries joined Malian soldiers to drive the Islamists from the three northern towns of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu. At the request of France, the United States sent cargo planes to ferry troops and tankers for aerial refueling. A drone base in Niger is providing surveillance and intelligence-gathering.
Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou warned that Islamists were opening a border in northern Mali for jihadists. He urged the Security Council to allow the use of force to restore the integrity of Mali’s territory.
In a meeting between this correspondent and Malian leaders in September, they blamed NATO for the instability that led to the March military coup, which began the swift destabilization of the country. The soldiers who overthrew the elected government rebelled because they were outgunned by a long-standing uprising in the north led by ethnic-Tuareg mercenaries armed with large caches of weapons from Libya. The mercenaries once protected Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
The Tuareg fighters joined the Islamists, who took control of northern Mali and instituted Shariah law.
Capt. Amadou Sanogo, the coup leader, defended the overthrow of President Amadou Toumani Toure, accusing him of failing to support the soldiers in the fight against the Islamists.
“Toure was corrupt, and corruption ran deep in his government,” he said.
Capt. Sanogo said his soldiers were surrounded for more than two months without adequate arms, ammunition and food. In January, almost 90 soldiers were slaughtered by Islamists near Kidal. Reinforcements did not arrive, so the beleaguered soldiers had to retreat to Bamako.
“Toure benefited from the drug trade and was not going to fight the Islamists,” Capt. Sanogo said.
“He paid teachers and students to strike periodically to distract people from the real issues of unemployment, food shortages and the rampant corruption. The justice system was also rigged, and health care was not available for most people. Civil society was suffering.”