The parallels are striking: A government collapses in a divided country, militant jihadist groups quickly fill the vacuum, and a humanitarian disaster breaks out, threatening to breed chaos throughout the region. These factors have long been associated with Somalia, the world's most enduring failed state. But for months now they have begun to describe Mali, located across the continent to the west, which is now poised to assume Somalia's unenviable status as Africa's most troubled nation. And just as Somalia's instability ripped through the Horn of Africa, so too could the chaos in Mali mean trouble for the larger Sahel region in West Africa.
Things first started to go south in March, when soldiers staged a coup in Bamako, overthrowing President Amadou Toumani Toure only weeks before a new president was to be selected. Quickly thereafter, Tuareg rebels, who have had grievances with the Malian government since the early 1960s, aligned with jihadist forces, defeated the national army, captured the key cities of Timbuktu, Kidal, and Gao and declared the northern part of the country the breakaway nation of Azawad.
Since then, Islamic extremists have gained the upper hand. According to one source, Islamist factions have pushed indigenous Tuaregs out of northern Mali completely. The government in the south is weak, technocratic, and has been without its interim president, Diacounda Traore, since he left the country for Paris following a beating in his office on May 21 by backers of the coup. And there are no indications that the interim Mali government has the ability to pursue a political or military settlement with the Islamists in the north.
Mali had been the model counterinsurgency program for the United States in Africa. The sudden collapse of this program, in which the Pentagon had invested tens of millions of dollars over the last decade, suggests that Washington had significantly misread the environment in Mali. As a result, al Qaeda in the Islamic Margreb (AQIM) and its ally, Ansar Dine, now have control of several relatively significant urban areas from which they can plan attacks on American targets in West Africa and send resources to al Qaeda affiliates in other regions.
Today, the northern half of Mali is now a virtual no-go area for journalists and humanitarian workers; Ansar Dine controls the northern cities and AQIM fighters have free rein throughout the countryside. Together they have instituted a harsh form of sharia law and destroyed centuries-old monuments including ancient Muslim shrines in Timbuktu -- actions reminiscent of al-Shabab and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
But while the situation in northern Mali has deteriorated rapidly, the international community has not responded in kind. Earlier this month, the U.N. Security Council deferred a request by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) for authorization to deploy 3,200 troops in Mali until it received "additional information" related to the goals and objectives of the proposed intervention. ECOWAS has also called for the creation of a government of national unity and elections. But State Department officials following this issue suggest that it might take up to 12 months to structure a force that could stabilize the north of Mali. During this time frame, State Department officials envision that elections would be held in Mali, possibly by May or June 2013, and a newly elected Malian government would be in place to signal its support for a U.N.-authorized ECOWAS force to take on the Islamists in the north.
By that time, however, northern Mali is likely to be an al Qaeda stronghold and a significantly larger force than ECOWAS is proposing would be needed to dislodge the jihadists. Together, AQIM and Ansar Dine currently can count on up to several thousand armed fighters. AQIM has generated millions of dollars from ransoms paid by kidnapped Europeans and illicit drug transactions, and will likely work to strengthen the military capabilities of the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, adding more pressure to the challenges being faced by the Nigerian government, Washington's key strategic partner in the region. As Gen. Carter Hamm, the commander of Africom, recently remarked, the linkages between AQIM and Boko Haram are the "most worrisome" of any security threat facing the United States and African nations.