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January 20, 2013

U.S. Policy Makes Mess of Mali

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With pro-al-Qaeda Islamist militants running amok in northwest Africa in places like Mali and Algeria, seizing territory and taking hostages, it’s far from clear that Team Obama has the foggiest idea of what to do.

That’s not going to cut it.

It’s not like this is a new problem. Unleashed by the conflict in Libya, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its allies defeated the Malian army in northern Mali almost a year ago, putting the territory under Sharia law.

AQIM, along with militant groups such as Ansar Dine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, not only came to control an area the size of Texas, but recently began pressing toward the Malian capital, Bamako.

Reports indicate that like Afghanistan and Iraq previously and Syria today, Mali has become “Islamist Central,” with foreign fighters making their way there from inside — and outside — the region to battle infidels and build a Muslim “caliphate” (kingdom).

It’s gotten worse.

Expanding the area of conflict, an AQIM affiliate raided a natural gas facility last week in Algeria, taking hostage lots of Algerian and foreign workers, including Americans. (A subsequent raid by Algerian forces was less than successful.)

As we know, al-Qaeda & Co. is an opportunistic organization that looks to take advantage of chaos, lawlessness, ungoverned spaces and weak governments. Some experts warn that Mali and its environs could become the next (pre-9/11) Afghanistan.

We all know what that could mean.

Indeed, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said: “If we don’t deal with these militant groups and terrorists swiftly and effectively, they will only pose an increasing threat in the future as they already have in Benghazi and now Algeria and Mali.”

American and European officials have reportedly said these terror groups could use Mali as a platform for attacks not only in Africa, but beyond — which likely means at least the United States and Europe.

Even though the al-Qaeda threat in northern and western Africa has been growing for some time now, the Obama administration has been pretty hands-off, perhaps hoping the problem would go away.

Or maybe they didn’t think the United States was in the cross-hairs of these African al-Qaeda affiliates and that the objective of these militant groups was national rather than transnational; that is, the target was Mali as opposed to the United States.

In other words, if we didn’t mess with them, they wouldn’t mess with us. Considering our experience with al-Qaeda for some time now, you could probably put that in the category of “whistling past the graveyard.”

It also appears Washington and others were hoping African troops might handle the matter in Mali, perhaps like the African Union force did in Somalia (with the support of U.S. drone strikes) against al-Qaeda ally al-Shabab, which — by the way — took some five years.

The French decided they couldn’t wait for a new African force to appear and get trained and, instead, sent troops and planes to Mali last week to prevent its former colony from becoming the first al-Qaeda-run state.

As such, isn’t it long past time that we have a comprehensive plan for dealing with this latest al-Qaeda resurgence? It’s not like the increasing mess in Mali appeared without plenty of warning.

-Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.

First appeared in Boston Herald.

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