The situation in northern Mali has gotten so severe that the United States is reportedly in talks with France to take steps to bring the region back under the control of the country’s central government.
France has begun sending in drones to do surveillance missions in northern Mali because it is extremely remote. Pentagon officials have said the U.S. has also been using drones for several months to assess the situation. But it is unclear what would move the two nations to use troops to take control away from Islamist militants and hand it back to the central government. Up to this point, the U.S. has been content to help others in the region fight against the militants, who reportedly have ties to Al-Qaeda.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney talked about the crisis in Mali during the debate on Monday night with President Obama. Romney used Mali as an illustration of the rise of Al Qaeda, trying to make the point that the world has gotten less safe during the administration of President Obama because terrorist groups have been allowed to flourish in places like Mali. Obama countered that Al Qaeda has been decimated during his administration.
Since Mali’s president Amadou Toumani Toure was ousted in March, the north and east of the country have been under the control of Tuareg rebels and militias linked to Al Qaeda.
“There is a feeling that it is a dire situation in northern Mali and we need prompt action,” said Guatemala’s envoy to the United Nations, Gert Rosenthal, who holds the rotating presidency of the Security Council this month.
“But it is a very complex operation… this will be the first step towards something more robust, I hope.”
When the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic returned from Mali two weeks ago, he reported to the world community that Islamist militias had imposed a harsh version of Sharia law on the areas they controlled, drastically affecting the lives of women in particular. Mali residents in the north told him of forced marriages, forced prostitution, widespread rape, and women being sold as “wives” for less than $1,000.
Rebels also stoned to death an unwed couple and amputated the hand of an alleged thief. They have also destroyed half of the World Heritage-listed tombs and mausoleums in the town of Timbuktu, claiming they violated Sharia law and promoted idolatry among Muslims. In the view of the UN, the destruction of the shrines could be considered war crimes; the International Criminal Court has launched a preliminary inquiry into the alleged atrocities.
While Romney mentioned Mali during the debate, neither candidate made the link between Mali’s crisis and the civil war last year in Libya. Guns have been sent into Mali from Libya to help the Tuareg rebel groups, some of whom had fought for Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi.
In addition to the political chaos, the situation in Mali is worsened by a drought.
Thomas Dempsey, an analyst with the U.S. Defense Department’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies, says that sending drones in to obtain intelligence and sharing it with partners on the ground is the best approach right now.
“It is an incredibly remote part of Africa with very, very poor infrastructure, very poor road nets. Simply knowing what is happening on the ground is very, very difficult. And remotely piloted vehicles can be of great help in that regard,” Dempsay said.
The United States and its international partners in the past have said that if there is any outside military intervention in Mali, it should be undertaken by troops from other African countries.