In a week marked by an ongoing Bowdoin divestment debate, a papal resignation, the State of the Union address and a surprise nuclear test, it’s no small wonder that the situation in war-torn Mali isn’t getting much coverage.
After the sudden spike in interest last month following the launch of France’s intervention in the North African nation—“Opération Serval”—foreign news coverage of Malian affairs has largely returned to the way it has been over the last decade: essentially non-existent.
Only reports of kidnappings and the occasional piece about the increasing influence of Islamist groups are enough to pique the interest of the media on both sides of the Atlantic.
Mali is seen, wrongly, as being no different from any other failed African state, when in fact the repercussions of its collapse would have a significant impact far beyond its borders.
In Mali, like in many former colonies, the borders were drawn without any regards to geographical, ethnic or political considerations. This partly explains why the some of the Tuareg—a people known for their nomadic lifestyle and stunning blue robes—have rebelled against the governing power in Mali five times in the last century.
Until last year, each effort of the Tuareg people to create an independent nation, Azawad, resulted in a stalemate or was successfully suppressed by Mali’s army. Yet something changed in January 2012, when the most recent rebellion was launched.
A combined effort of the Azawad National Liberation Movement, the Tuareg autonomy movement, and several Islamist groups reached levels of success never before seen in the region.
The apparent failure of the Malian government to effectively defend itself against these dangerous forces worried Western governments, and incensed some officers in the Malian army to the point where they led a coup d’état.
In the aftermath of this mutiny, the rebels managed to seize control of even more of Mali’s ever-shrinking territory. In the eyes of many outside observers, the country was being pushed closer to total collapse.
Early last month, Islamist forces captured the town of Konna, which lies some 600 km (370 miles) from Mali’s capital, Bamako. This small rural town—about the same size as Lewiston, Maine—was to be the first site of the confrontation between France and its Islamist enemies.
Much has been said of the decision by French president François Hollande to deploy the armed forces of his country into a former colony.
Many commentators said that the action smacked of imperialism, a sound bite hardly based in reality. In fact, efforts against the rebels have been, largely, an international effort—French and African forces fight side-by-side on the ground, with tactical support from various Western powers, including the United States.
These same pundits also opine that Mali will become a Gallic version of Afghanistan, a quagmire from which France can only painfully extricate itself.
This kind of assessment is premature and fails to recognize that French soldiers are due to pull out of Mali over the next couple of months, as an African-led force replaces them.
While France’s involvement in Mali may become longer than expected, it should not be a point over which people agonize.
Instead, focus should be directed to the need to create a stable Malian government that will be able to defend its people from outside forces like al-Qaeda, but that does not disregard the rights of minorities like the Tuareg.
A stronger Mali makes a stronger West Africa and a stronger world, by reinforcing the security of both.
Indeed, the region is crisscrossed by routes used by arms traffickers, drug smugglers, and human traffickers, and is used by terrorists seeking to avoid direct confrontation with their enemies.
We can only call the campaign in Mali a victory if the state that is left in its aftermath is better prepared to face the challenges of tomorrow.
Our obligations to the country mustn’t end when the last French solider leaves the territory; they must continue for years to come.
Failing that, we can only doom Mali to collapse.