SINCE MARCH, no fewer than four crises have shaken the foundations of Mali, West Africa’s landlocked heart.
First, a military coup toppled the country’s democratically elected government and ended the exercise of civilian authority. Second, Libyan weapons and resources spilling into Mali’s northern region have transformed what might otherwise have been a minor Tuareg rebellion into a brewing civil war against the newly established military government in Bamako, the nation’s capital.
Third, that rebellion led to the arrival of a radical Islamist sect that has desecrated the ancient city of Timbuktu, imposed the harshest strain of Sharia law and paved the way for an al-Qaeda outpost in West Africa. Finally, these factors have conspired to generate a humanitarian emergency of epic proportions: Fleeing death and starvation, hundreds of thousands of refugees have poured into neighboring countries. In short, Mali is on the verge of becoming a second Somalia, condemned to a future of violence, political entropy and economic depression without an end in sight.
Unfortunately, the international community has greeted these developments with nothing but inertia and stall tactics. By and large, the response has been to focus on restoring civilian authority in the aftermath of the March 22 military coup. The United States and others have insisted that only after a newly elected democratic government is established can any successful regional intervention ultimately be launched against the Islamists in the north. In other words, the idea is to address the first of Mali’s crises as the key to tackling the whole.
While that approach makes sense in theory, it doesn’t address the urgency of the situation nearly enough. It could take a year or more for Mali to carry out an appropriately democratic election. In that amount of time, the Islamists might easily grow stronger in the north, continuing to persecute civilians and paving the way for a terrorist enclave in the region. After all, it took only about two months for these extremists to wrestle power from the Tuaregs, another month or so after that to destroy Mali’s most sacred city, and one more to begin public stonings for sex out of wedlock. At that rate, where will we be in a year?
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has proposed a military intervention in northern Mali. The United Nations — in conjunction with the African Union and the United States, among others — has pushed ECOWAS to define more clearly the type of intervention it would launch. Definition is important, but not nearly as much as rescuing Mali. ECOWAS proved its worth in Cote d’Ivoire in 2011; the United States should support an effort to launch a similar intervention of U.N. and regional forces in Mali as soon as possible.
Time is of the essence, and it is running out.