Since 2007, the United States has spent more than $550 million to help train and supply an African proxy force of about 18,000 soldiers in Somalia, which has brought a measure of stability to the war-torn country for the first time in two decades.
Although the United States has not committed to replicating that approach in Mali, Carson and others are holding up the routing of the al-Shabab militia and conducting of elections in Somalia as a template for actions elsewhere.
“It’s a model that should be reviewed and looked at as an element for what might be effective in that part of the world,” Carson said in an interview, “but it’s not there yet.”
The Somalia comparison offers the clearest view yet of U.S. thinking about the growing terrorism threat from Mali, a landlocked West African country the size of Texas that has imploded politically since a military coup in March.
As in Somalia, the threat to the United States and other countries from Mali is wrapped in a larger problem of lawlessness, poverty, tribal friction and weak governance.
Somalia adopted a provisional constitution in August, and a new federal government was formed after years of chaos that had fueled terrorism, piracy and famine. Security has slowly improved under the proxy force, which is led by the African Union but bankrolled and trained by the United States, European Union and United Nations.
Carson said the internationally backed plan for Somalia’s political reconstruction was working because the country’s neighbors, the United States, E.U. and United Nations had subscribed to a common set of goals.
He cautioned that a regional and international consensus would be required for the approach to work in Mali. “There needs to be that kind of a clear understanding there as well,” he said.
Mali’s military quickly lost control of the country after the March coup, which was led by a U.S.-trained army captain. Since then, Islamist militias affiliated with al-Qaeda have imposed strict Sharia law in northern Mali and, along with Tuareg rebels, declared an independent state. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled their homes.
Last week, the remnants of Mali’s central government, France and west African nations led calls at the United Nations for the creation of an African-led force to help Mali confront the militants.
The Economic Community of West African States has said it is willing to send about 3,300 troops to Mali if it gets the backing of the United Nations and Western countries.
The United States has been leery of a French-backed proposal for quick deployment of an internationally backed African force in Mali, preferring a more comprehensive plan that addresses underlying political problems and tribal divisions.
“We want to make sure that it is an African-led international response, and also be very clear that whatever is done out there should in fact be well planned, well organized and well financed,” Carson said.
The U.S. diplomat has also said that it is important to enlist support from Mali’s northern neighbors, especially Algeria and Mauritania, which share a long border with the troubled country and have also fought their own long-running Islamist insurgencies.
U.S. officials have ruled out sending American combat troops to Mali but have said the Obama administration could help train, equip and transport an intervention force drawn from other African countries.
“There will be a need for some type of security response,” Carson said, adding that the United States could support one if it is drawn up correctly.