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."
The political parties also noticed that the government was not preparing for the elections. Mr. Toure was in control of the process and wanted his ally Modibo Sidibe, the former prime minister, to succeed him. It was important to have fair and transparent elections, Capt. Sanogo said.
The Tuareg tribes had long complained of being marginalized, which resulted in several rebellions over the years. Malian leaders, however, thought they were represented fairly in the parliament.
Tuareg leaders with whom I met said they needed hope for better lives, food on the table, jobs, education for their children and health care services. It was also important that the 500,000 Tuaregs living in neighboring refugee camps — one-third of the northern population — be brought home to participate in elections scheduled for July, they said.
The interim government, which took over after the coup, needs to start discussions with the Tuareg separatists who are not aligned with the more fundamentalist Ansar Dine Islamists, who want to rule northern Mali under Shariah law. The real fight is with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and al Qaeda-linked Islamists wanting an Islamic state.
The French military stopped the Islamists' advance and liberated Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu. The victory may be short-term because the vast desert can provide the Islamist a safe haven. History has proved that the insurgents are patient and resourceful, surviving harsh conditions and striking at targets of weakness.
To defeat the Islamist insurgency, African military forces need to be trained, equipped and prepared to stay for an indefinite period in northern Mali. The Western coalition needs to leave as soon as possible so as not to be perceived as occupiers and reduce the risk of jihadist retaliation attacks.
In a recent Atlantic Council panel discussion on managing the crisis in Mali and the Sahel, an African specialist asked "why the U.S. should be involved in Mali."
The panel members noted that Islamists planned to make Mali the jihadist epicenter in the Sahel — the vast, semi-arid belt of North Africa that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea.
This is why the U.S. needs to support Mali to become a stable democracy. It is in the interest of national security.
• John Price is a former U.S. ambassador to Comoros, Mauritius and the Seychelles islands.