For nearly 10 months, Mali sat on the international community's back-burner of global crises in need of addressing. The eurozone, Syria's civil war, and China and Japan's dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands garnered far more column inches among America's talking heads than did the situation in Mali, where an inadvertent coup d'état last March by low-level military officers created a security vacuum in the country's north. Meanwhile, the usual small group of experts on the Sahel -- the vast, parched region spanning across Africa from Mauritania to Sudan -- watched closely as jihadist groups seized more and more territory, imposing a harsh from of Islamic law upon hapless Malian civilians.
It wasn't until Jan. 11, when France began bombing the Islamists to stop their advance on Mali's government-held south, that the rest of the world snapped to attention. And that's when the trouble began: the terrible headlines, the misleading cover art, and the bad analysis.
But first, some background on how we got here. By April 2012, the collapse of state authority in northern Mali had allowed a separatist rebel movement, the MNLA (the French acronym for National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad), to take over the north's major cities and to declare the independence of their long-dreamed-of state of Azawad. The dream of Azawad lasted less than two months, when MNLA fighters were pushed out of power by three Islamist groups, Ansar Dine, MUJAO (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa), and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). These movements attempted to erect governance structures and systems based on a strict interpretation of sharia in the areas they controlled, going so far as to impose such penalties as cutting off hands for accusations of theft, requiring women to wear hijab in public, and segregating boys and girls at school.
Despite displacing over 100,000 people, the 2012 turmoil in northern Mali did not provoke much international response beyond pro forma condemnations. It took the Security Council until late December to approve a plan to retake northern Mali via the deployment of a 3,300-person West African force. That plan involved extensive training for West African troops, and no sort of invasion was expected before late 2013 at the earliest.
Fast-forward to mid-January, when the French stunned the world with the speed of their intervention. France's involvement in the crisis expanded quickly; as of this writing, there are approximately 3,000 French forces deployed to the country. In addition, a total African force of 7,700 soldiers is deploying to fight alongside the Malian army to secure and protect the country's north. These forces have taken control of the cities of Gao and Timbuktu, and already France may be signaling its intention to pull back and leave African forces to run the operation.
African affairs are generally a low foreign-policy priority for the United States. As such, the American foreign policy establishment is not well known for its expertise on West African security crises. But France's sudden and deep engagement in Mali -- and limited U.S. support for the operation -- left most media outlets and think tanks in need of immediate explanations. Not surprisingly, this state of affairs led to a sudden proliferation of Mali "experts" pontificating on the airways and in print about a country most could not have located with ease on a map two weeks before. False claims based on limited contextual knowledge have since abounded, including one widely repeated claim that this crisis is largely a result of the Libya intervention (it's not; this happened due to domestic political crises in Mali).
Among the most egregious -- and inaccurate -- claims about the crisis to emerge is the idea that Mali could become France's Afghanistan. Apparently based on the understanding that engaging in war against Muslim extremists on difficult terrain in a fragile state, reporters and politicos across the ideological spectrum have embraced the comparison, warning of the possibility of mission creep and/or other dire consequences. The Economist took this notion the farthest last week, dedicating its cover to "Afrighanistan?" Time followed suit with a brief cover reference to "Africanistan."