Another war in northern Africa is in the offing. The United States, along with the major European Union nations, is pledged to support it with training, supplies and logistics. But this time, no matter how diplomatically desirable, the U.S. and its European allies may not be able to “lead from the rear,” in President Barack Obama’s memorable phrase.
For years, Mali, a former French colony, was one of northwest Africa’s most stable nations, despite deep ethnic and religious divisions and an unstable climate in the north that has produced some of history’s worst famines.
As so often seems to happen in Africa, a group of junior officers overthrew the elected government in March, allowing a secessionist movement to seize control of the sprawling northern part of the country. The secessionists were quickly displaced by radical Islamic militias, including al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which became the dominant power in the north.
The Islamic radicals were easily able to repulse a few feeble efforts by Mali’s army to oust them, and their brutal version of Islam forced a half-million refugees to flee to the south.
The African Union and the Economic Community of West African States believed, rightly, that it would be a bad idea to let the radical Islamists take root there, on the well-founded grounds that after brutalizing their own people they would begin threatening their neighbors.
The U.N. Security Council agreed and authorized Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to develop a plan for Mali to oust the radicals and regain its territory, using troops from the African Union with support from the U.S. and the European Union – principally Britain and France, with Germany offering its usual restrained help.
Though its efforts have been overshadowed by more dramatic events at home, the U.S. is actively involved in organizing this military venture. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Michael Pelletier told reporters in late October, “We’ve seen recently that the situation has worsened and we must do something to resolve this challenge.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was soon in neighboring Algeria, which has years of experience fighting radical groups in the desert, to actively support the African Union campaign in Mali. It would be best if Algeria joined the U.S. and EU in evicting the radicals. If not, the war will go on without them.
Opponents of the intervention might argue: Why not let the Islamic radicals be? They’re in the middle of nowhere, far from any major urban centers. Who can they harm, except their own people?
That was the U.S. thinking in Afghanistan from the time the Soviet Union pulled out in 1989 until the hijacked airliners hit the World Trade Center in 2001. There is no excuse for not learning from that grievous mistake.