A month ago, the crisis in Mali was on few Americans' radar. But when France launched a military operation to combat a terrorist coalition that had taken over half the country, Mali became the crisis du jour.
There had been plenty of warning, but many were surprised to learn that terrorists in Africa's Sahel region now pose a significant and growing terror threat to international security and western interests. Still, America's next steps are far from certain.
When the Qaddafi regime fell in September 2011, extremist groups quickly exploited the gaping power vacuum throughout North Africa and the Sahel. Large stockpiles of weapons from Qaddafi's warehouses, including MANPADS capable of shooting down a commercial jet, came onto the black market and ended up in the hands of terrorists. Despite warnings from regional governments of the impending fall-out, the Obama administration did little to contain the emerging security threats.
No country has felt the effects as significantly as Mali. Familiar with instability, Mali has suffered coups, rebellions from the Tuareg population and the effects of criminal networks and terrorism. In the past year, Mali has experienced all of these simultaneously.
Since the military coup last March, the international community has waffled on how to address the occupation of northern Mali and the feeble transition to civilian governance. A military solution became evident, but questions over leadership, strategy and burden-sharing delayed significant progress.
The swift southward advancement by Islamist militants earlier this month was a game-changer. French President François Hollande had been a vocal advocate of using an African-led military force to reclaim the north. However, few anticipated France would launch a unilateral intervention, known as Operation Serval.
As French troops deployed, questions over the mission's objectives and exit strategy quickly emerged. Initially, President Hollande stated that French troops would be in Mali "as long necessary." French objectives -- initially vague -- include halting the militants' progress toward the capital, aerial attacks, restoration of governance and the total reconquest of the north. These grand ambitions will inevitably require broader and prolonged international support.
France has stressed that it seeks to transfer the operation to African leadership as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, considerable progress has already been made on the ground. French and Malian soldiers have already reclaimed Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu.
Yet, holding this territory and securing it against the threat of terrorism will be the long-term challenge. Militants have left town or are hiding amongst civilians, but they haven't left the country. Regional governments have pledged troops to assist in stabilization, and a few have already trickled in. But, the extent to which regional militaries will make a difference is questionable. Nigeria, for example, has pledged 900 troops -- only 200 of which have made it to Bamako, far from the front lines.
Neither the Malian Army nor the eventual 7,700 regional troops planned for have the capacity to lead such a mission without sustained training and assistance. This lack of capacity will eventually devolve into an issue of will: Do African governments care enough about Mali to dedicate more resources? And will these African forces be sufficiently trained or equipped? Regardless, it's starting to look like France will be in Mali much longer than originally anticipated.
Moreover, governance in Bamako has yet to be restored. One of the first rules of mounting a successful counter-insurgency is the necessity for governance to be established prior to military action. Yet, the international community has largely overlooked the military's oppressive influence.
Initially, the Obama Administration urged the reestablishment of governance before using military force. Now, however, it has opted for robust combat support, providing air transport for French troops and African forces, refueling capabilities, intelligence and logistical support. The Obama Administration also signed a Status of Forces Agreement with Niger, creating the framework for a U.S. military presence near the Malian border.
At least the region now is getting the level of attention it deserves from the Obama Administration. It was, after all, the Administration's failure to recognize the extent of the threat that allowed four Americans to be killed in the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.
Tackling the region's security challenges will require a long-term commitment from Washington and the international community at large. North Africa and the Sahel are inextricably linked. If Libya was a splash, Mali is a ripple.
-Morgan Roach is a research associate in the Heritage Foundation's Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies. Caitlin C. Poling is the director of government relations for the Foreign Policy Initiative.
First appeared in The Huffington Post.