ACCORDING TO the Obama administration, northern Mali “has become a safe haven for extremist and terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and affiliates” — the same forces linked to the deadly Sept. 11 assault on the U.S. mission in Libya. Northern Mali, says Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Africa, has become “the largest territory controlled by Islamic extremists in the world.” A Taliban-style rule of stonings and amputations has been imposed, and a dire emergency is unfolding: 400,000 civilians have fled their homes, and, the United Nations says, 600,000 children under the age of 5 are threatened by severe malnutrition.
Not to worry. U.N. officials say that the terrorists will be subdued by a military intervention — but not before the fall of 2013.
The extraordinary delay is due not to any debate over the need for armed action. On the contrary, the necessity of it is stipulated by the rump Malian government, which lost the territory this year; neighboring African and Arab countries (with the possible exception of Algeria); former colonial power France; the Obama administration; and even U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who told the Security Council last week that “every passing day brings with it the risk of a further entrenchment of terrorist groups and criminal networks.”
The council could approve a resolution this month authorizing an intervention led by West African states that have agreed to contribute 3,300 troops and to rebuild the Malian army for the mission. They say they could be ready to mount the operation in the first months of next year.
So why the holdup? Mr. Ban contends that “fundamental questions on how the force would be led, sustained, trained, equipped and financed remain unanswered.” The United Nations so far has declined to pick up the estimated $500 million cost, but the African states don’t have the funds. Military experts say that while capturing northern Mali’s three principal cities — including the ancient crossroads of Timbuktu — might not be so difficult, a follow-up counterinsurgency campaign in a territory larger than Texas would likely exceed the capabilities of the African forces. Arab governments with stronger armies and counterterrorism experience, such as Algeria, are uncommitted. And Western governments say that they won’t send ground forces.
The Obama administration, for its part, is insisting that military action must be preceded by a multi-step political process, including democratic elections for a new Malian government and negotiations with groups in northern Mali that are not part of al-Qaeda. One, Ansar Dine, has imposed fundamentalist rule on Timbuktu and destroyed many of its priceless religious and cultural monuments, but the theory is that it can be detached from the transnational terrorists.
Negotiations, which began this month, are certainly worth a try. But it’s also worth bearing in mind what is happening while this process drags on. As a Malian minister told the Security Council, “there are floggings, amputation of limbs, summary executions, children forced to become soldiers, rapes, stoning, looting and the destruction of cultural and historical sites.” Perhaps the diplomats in Turtle Bay can conclude it’s prudent to allow such atrocities to continue for another 10 or 12 months. But morality as well as common sense suggests that intervention must come sooner.