Mali, at the crossroads of Arab North Africa and black West Africa, tends to be one of too many places in the world where we Americans remain blissfully ignorant until a military or other emergency.
Yet we ignore the history, culture, power relations, transitions and natural settings of our neighbors on this planet at our peril, as the current situation in Mali shows. Equally, we miss opportunities for understanding our common humanity across national boundaries.
A secession attempt, a coup and French-led intervention thrust Mali into world news during the last year. But there is more to this country than its current label as a potential haven for Islamic extremists.
Though extremely poor, Mali has incredible cultural diversity – from semi-nomadic desert pastoralists, known as "blue people" for their indigo robes and turbans; to "masters of the river," famous for fishing; to savanna farmers; to cliff-dwellers. Each has a rich tradition of oral history, epic poetry, storytelling and internationally known music.
Mali also has a wealth of World Heritage sites – mud mosques, libraries of medieval manuscripts, sandstone cliff-dwellings – offering great tourism potential. Medieval empires centered on the Niger River at Timbuktu were a gateway to the trans-Sahara trade in gold, salt, ivory and books.
Islam in Mali historically has been moderate and tolerant, including a role for women in public life – minus veils.
Mali had cast off one-party military rule with the 1991 election, ushering in democracy in a majority Muslim country.
This country faces major environmental issues. Mali is huge, the size of California and Texas combined, located in the semi-arid Sahel frontier between the Sahara Desert and tropical savanna. At its core is a river bend, a "camel's hump" in the middle of the Niger River, the third-longest river in Africa. Once known as the "granary of West Africa," 65 percent of the country today is desert or semi-desert – with a decades-long drought and an expanding Sahara Desert. Food scarcity is growing.
At the same time, Mali is experiencing a "youth bulge" – 48 percent of the population is under age 15, compared with 20 percent in the United States – putting pressure on public schooling and jobs. Youth unemployment is a classic source of political instability and crime.
While the diverse peoples of Mali mostly have enjoyed good relations, the semi-nomadic Tuareg "blue desert people" are spread across the Sahara in Mali, Niger, Algeria, Libya and Burkina Faso – and they are minorities in each of those countries. Mali has seen a cycle of Tuareg demands for autonomy, rebellions and settlements since Mali achieved independence as a nation from France in 1960. The situation remains unresolved.
On top of this, drought has decimated Tuareg camel, cattle, sheep and goat herds. Some young men took to the underground economy, smuggling cigarettes, cars, fuel and people along traditional trans-Sahara caravan routes.
Others moved to Libya, joining Moammar Gadhafi's military. After Gadhafi's regime was overthrown in 2011, they returned to Mali's northern desert with weapons. Seeking secession, they joined Algerian-based hardline Islamists who hijacked their movement and took over northern Mali, triggering the current crisis.
The U.S. role
Unfortunately, Mali is the latest example of a post-9/11 U.S. tendency to treat every criminal gang in the Islamic world as al-Qaida itself, al-Qaida-linked or a potential al-Qaida affiliate – which has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
That mindset has produced an open-ended "global war on terror" that has favored military responses over diplomacy and development in distant lands – and risks creating more adversaries.
It also has elevated al-Qaida's cachet, so that small alienated bands running guns and drugs in the desert can include al-Qaida in their name, draw recruits and build a more ambitious agenda.
That's what has happened in Mali.
The French-led international intervention – with U.S. intelligence and logistical support – came after an Islamist remnant of Algeria's 1990s civil war renamed itself "Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb" (formerly the "Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat") and hijacked the Tuareg secessionist movement in Mali's northern desert. It imposed hardline Islamism – banning liquor and music; flogging women for not covering their heads; attacking Mali's heritage mosques, tombs and manuscripts.
So, international intervention was necessary. But it has roots in post-9/11 policies that Americans have not re-examined, even as the nation moved from the Bush era to the Obama era.
The post-9/11 response
As the United States went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Bush administration launched the Pan-Sahel Initiative in 2002 to equip and train militaries in four countries, including Mali. This was expanded in 2005 to become the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative.
The Bush administration also established a new U.S. combatant command for Africa in 2007. As former career diplomat Dennis Jett has written, "The bureaucratic reality is that having a four-star general roaming the continent looking for things to do will only ensure that bilateral relationships with those countries are dominated by military affairs."
Diplomacy and development took a backseat.
The effect has been to shift the balance toward the military in fragile societies. For example, U.S.-trained army officers, dissatisfied with the government's handling of the situation in northern Mali, led a military coup in March 2012 that toppled Mali's 20-year democracy.
Between the secessionist takeover in Mali's desert north and the toppling of the government, the entire Sahel region is now more unstable.
The United States needs to be part of the international effort to stabilize Mali – re-establishing civilian government and helping to broker a settlement in the north.
But that is just a beginning. We need a foreign policy reset – restoring the role of diplomacy and development, recalibrating the outsized role the U.S. military has taken on since 9/11. And we ought to aim for mutual understanding and exchange, not just crisis management.CROSSING BORDERS | Mali