Africa unraveling

Now is not the time for America to abandon its interests in Africa.

Malains listen to radio 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Antony Njuguna)
Malains listen to radio 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Antony Njuguna)
The unrest in West Africa continued this week, as France announced plans to deploy drones to northern Mali in order to increase its surveillance of al-Qaeda forces assembled in the region.  Hundreds of thousands of square miles are now in the hands of militants.  Plans are being drafted for French and British forces to conduct a military intervention, with United Nation’s sanction, in the near future, reportedly supporting a small African force of over 6,000.  Last week, the UN adopted Resolution 2071 authorizing the start of preparations for deployment into northern Mali.
In recent months, foreign militants have arrived in northern Mali by the truckload, eager to fill the ranks of the local al-Qaeda franchise, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa.  As arms, including heavy artillery, continue to flow down from Libya, the militants are taking advantage of Mali’s March coup to establish their base in the north while the central government decides how best to respond.  The Mali army is currently demoralized and clearly not up to the task of directly confronting the militants.  France is promising to train local soldiers into a fighting force that can be a key component in next year’s attack, when Mali forces would be joined by a contingent from members of the Economic Community of West African States.
Is the West now watching a re-enactment of the same tragedy that led to the rise of Osama bin Laden in the 1990s?
Like Afghanistan at that time, northern Mali could eventually provide terrorists with an extensive and well-defended base from which to plan and execute bloody attacks at will.  The area currently under the control of militants is the size of France.  Unfortunately, the American response to these growing threats have been muted and quixotic.
While the Obama Administration focuses on securing its future at the upcoming election, Islamists in northern Mali have imposed Shariah law and are regularly serving out harsh punishments on locals who fall out of step with their new regime, including stonings, floggings and amputations.  In addition, as was widely reported during the summer, some extremists have even gone so far as to desecrate and destroy invaluable World Heritage sites that they consider to be blasphemous.
Somalia and Yemen provide clear examples of how the failure of central government authority in impoverished countries can create a fertile space for extremist groups to take root and grow, outside the reach of law.  Mali poses similar challenges because, like Somalia and Yemen, there are several crisis occurring simultaneously.  In addition to the crisis in within the central Malian government, and within the security infrastructure of surrounding countries, there is a humanitarian crisis that causes widespread misery while at the same time establishing a foundation for the extremists to take control.
With Mali now effectively divided into two different regions, the militants in the north have been free to dig in and fund their military build-up with an array of illegal activities.  As a result, widespread famine is now a daily reality and some fear that the Mali crisis could eventual lead to an arc of instability and suffering expanding across Africa.
Even US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has recognized the dangers that are now posed in Mali, calling it a “powder keg” that threatens to undermine African hopes of economic and political development.  While French President Francois Hollande has taken the lead in crafting the international response, and Prime Minister David Cameron has indicated that the British are considering increasing their involvement, the Obama administration remains hesitant to make the threat of Islamist terrorism in Africa a priority, despite the recent UN resolution sanctioning military intervention in Mali.
As bin Laden methodically developed his organization in Afghanistan in the 1990s, the US failed to take the threat seriously enough.  As a result, Americans suffered heavily for this oversight.  By allowing al Qaeda the time and freedom to organize and develop, it became all the more difficult to address the threats they posed once their capabilities were displayed as clearly as their intentions had been for many years.
French leadership of a Mali intervention, supported by other European countries and backed by the UN Security Council, is a viable response which should be supported.  The US cannot be the first point of call for any police action in any corner of the world.  Given the proximity and close historical ties between Europe and West Africa, it is appropriate to see Europeans in the forefront of this response.
However, the consequences of failing to secure northern Mali and remove the militant Islamist threat in the region will continue to fall disproportionately on Americans and American interests, as the most frequent target of extremist rhetoric and propaganda.  Washington must therefore stay engaged in Africa and must make clear to the extremists, to other African leaders and to the rest of the world that a secure and peaceful continent, free of the threat of terror, is a high priority.
As the political realities of a frustrating close re-election campaign increasingly monopolize President Obama’s attention, it is important for the country’s first African-American president to not forget his father’s continent.  Especially not at a time when the future ramifications for the US, should militants remain in control of their own safe haven, could be so severe.
The writer is a commentator who divides his time between the United Kingdom and Southern California. He has appeared on CNN, CNBC, BBC and Sky News, and has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Financial Times and The Economist.