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Northern Mali Faces Political, Economic Crisis as Islamists Gain More Control

January 14, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Despite French air strikes, Islamist rebels have gained more control of Mali, a nation rich in minerals and resources. Jeffrey Brown talks to the Atlantic Council's J. Peter Pham and Emira Woods of Institute for Policy Studies about advances by the insurgency to control the West African nation, where democracy has weakened.

JEFFREY BROWN: Despite the aerial bombardments, Islamist insurgents took more territory today, including a strategic military camp, according to French and Malian military officials.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the U.S. is supporting the French effort with intelligence gathering assistance. And he didn’t rule out American aircraft landing in Mali to provide airlift and logistical support.

For more, we’re joined by J. Peter Pham of the AfricaCenter at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C., and Emira Woods, co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Emira, let me start with you. Before we get to the French intervention, I want you to help people understand the context here a bit. What makes Mali important and what has made it so volatile?

EMIRA WOODS, Institute For Policy Studies: Well, Mali is a country on the West Coast of Africa that is really at the epicenter. It is on the Sahara, the brink of the Sahara and the sub-Saharan Africa.

It is a country that is rich in resources from gold to uranium, vital minerals in Mali. There are also explorations of oil, particularly in Northern Mali. So it is a country that is rich in resources, that has actually been really the center of a democratic process for quite some time.

We have to remember it is Malian women and students that back in the 1990s let out a dictator and ushered in a democratic process that has held since the 1990s.

We have to also recognize the history of Mali. Remember Timbuktu, the ancient center of learning for Islam, the oldest universities in Timbuktu older than oxford or Harvard or Cambridge. They’re there in Mali.

So, Mali has been pivotal place not only for Africa, but really for much of the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Yes.

EMIRA WOODS: It is unfortunate to see the developments happening there now.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, well, let me ask Peter Pham to bring us up to date, to talk about the insurgency — there are various groups, various insurgency groups.

How organized — what do we know about them? How organized are they? What are their potential ties or actual ties to al-Qaida and other worldwide groups?

J. PETER PHAM, Atlantic Council: Certainly.

One of the insurgency groups, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, was the first al-Qaida franchise outside of the key organization in South Asia, in Afghanistan, Pakistan and then al-Qaida in Iraq. It’s connected to al-Qaida and it’s very well resourced, because the last decade, they have been make making a lot of money kidnapping for ransom.

Just earlier this year, they obtained — last year — excuse me — they obtained close to $10 million in ransom for several European hostages. They have also made a lot of money assisting drug traffickers. It’s the preferred route through the areas they control for cocaine smugglers to Europe.

So, they have got money. And with that money, they purchase arms that have been looted from Libyan arsenals after the fall of the Gadhafi regime. So, you have got arms, money and fighters.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you have a Malian government that is clearly very weak at this point.

J. PETER PHAM: Very weak, especially after the overthrow of the elected government. Emira is quite right.

Mali has a great 20-year tradition of democracy. Unfortunately, in recent years, that democracy was being eaten up at the roots with corruption.

Some of the leadership was involved in drug smuggling and other criminal activities. So there was an overthrow of the regime, not to justify the overthrow, but that added to the confusion.

This is why the state really is — can be said to have failed in Mali.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Emira Woods, the French connection here clearly goes back to colonial ties. What caused the French to step in, do you think? And what is their — what are they hoping to do? How limited an action do you think this might be?

EMIRA WOODS: Well, the French are the colonial powers. They are formally the colonial powers there in West Africa and in Mali in particular.

And so they have a historic tie. I think you also have some more recent ties with French oil companies and just in part of the exploration of oil in Mali as well. So there’s some economic ties as well that we shouldn’t underestimate. But clearly what France has done is a unilateral action.

And I think alarm bells have to go off when a nation-state like France, a former colonial power, goes in and launches unilateral military action. The concern is that, you know, we have a United Nations, an international body, that should bring forward the collective will of the international community when there are crises like this.

But France really stepped forward and came to — has come to the U.N. today, days after launching the aerial bombardment in Mali. And I think the concern is that there cannot be really a military solution to this crisis in Mali. The crisis has its roots in political and also economic processes, people in the northern part of the country feeling completely marginalized from the rest of the country.

So, clearly, what had you had was an opportunity, because of the intervention, the NATO intervention in Libya, unleashing weapons both from Gadhafi’s coffers, as well as from the international community, weapons flowing from Libya across borders of Algeria into Mali to be able to actually create a crisis and further destabilize Northern Mali.

So I think what you have is a situation where unilateral intervention could create complications down the road both for civilians that could be targeted in these airstrikes, as well as for further complicating a political crises that may not be resolved militarily.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, and, Peter Pham, as we reported, Secretary Panetta said the U.S. is already providing some intelligence-gathering assistance.

What is the U.S. stake here or potential involvement, just to take it even further than what the French are doing now? Who are the other players, including the U.S.?

J. PETER PHAM: Well, I think the United States and the rest of the international community does — do have an interest in preventing Northern Mali from becoming the next Afghanistan, the next in-gathering place for all these extremist groups.

However, at the same time, the U.S. policy for — since the beginning of the Malian crisis has been to pursue a comprehensive package, a resolution that includes political, economic, as well as security dimensions.

And, unfortunately — here, I will agree with my friend Emira — the adoption of a unilateral effort on the part of the French has more or less cleared the table.

And now we’re putting all the eggs in the basket of the security dimension. It doesn’t address the political and economic marginalization and the issues that need to be addressed if you’re really going to roll back and contain this threat.

JEFFREY BROWN: The French — let me just ask you briefly. The French clearly were worried about blowback to France and to Europe. We heard Islamists in that piece threaten that.

Is there the potential for that kind of — do they have that kind of ability? Do we know?

J. PETER PHAM: They certainly have that potential ability and the — ironically, the intervention will galvanize perhaps more radicals, but the problem is France may be able to achieve with the intervention of the small force that’s put in there a short-term victory.

But the long-term sustainable and credible solution requires a great deal more effort. And when you hear the French foreign minister talk about getting out in a few weeks, what he will leave will be a far greater challenge.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, still very much unfolding.

Peter Pham and Emira Woods, thank you both very much.

EMIRA WOODS: Thank you.

J. PETER PHAM: Thank you.