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Mayhem in Mali

“There is no alternative. For some of these more radical groups, it’s going to take military force… We shouldn’t be optimistic that this is going to be a one- or two-week surgical strike, and then we go home.” – Jack Christofides, UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations

The president has had his hands full these days. Problems at home and abroad are pressing from all sides, and even though he no longer needs to worry about his re-election bid, Barack Obama has plenty of other worries to keep him up at night: A quickly-approaching fiscal cliff, yet more fallout from September’s Benghazi attacks, the appointment of the next Secretary of State, uncertain outcomes from the latest conflicts between Israel and Hamas, continuing violence in Syria, and a still-unresolved nuclear bone to pick with Iran, just to name a few. But one story that hasn’t gotten much attention, from president or press, is the ongoing violence and chaos that has gripped Mali for the past eight months.

A satellite image of Mali. Radical Islamists have taken over the northern desert region (known as the Azawad), an area roughly the size of France. (public domain)

Perhaps a bit of history is in order. Back in March, a group of soldiers staged a coup d’état, seizing the presidential palace and dissolving the government. In the aftermath of the coup, a group called the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA, in the French acronym) unilaterally declared that northern Mali, an area known as Azawad, was to be a free and independent state. The rebels backed their words with deeds, taking the northern Malian cities of Gao, Timbuktu, and Kidal in a matter of days. After these gains, the MNLA was joined and eventually sidelined (or fought) by militant Islamist groups, a number of them with ties to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

These Islamists are now the effective rulers of northern Mali (and have dropped the MNLA’s calls for secession), enforcing a brutally repressive regime on its inhabitants. The groups, rather than hoping to split northern Mali off from the rest of the state, are instead looking to enforce their radical view of Shari’a law on the entire nation, putting the still-unstable south at risk as well. Reports coming out of northern Malian cities like Gao and Timbuktu tell of public beatings, stonings, and amputations, forced marriages, and threats of grisly violence toward those regarded as “unholy,” such as unmarried pregnant women. Death tolls are uncertain, but with the region gripped by conflicts between and within rebel groups and radical mob “justice” occurring on what seems like a daily basis, the anarchic north may have seen hundreds killed so far.

Mali’s is more than a humanitarian and moral crisis, though it is both of those things. It could also quickly become a strategic crisis for the region, the Mediterranean, and even the US. Without forgetting the real human suffering happening daily in this desert, the West should recognize that, if left unaddressed, northern Mali could easily become “Africa’s Afghanistan,” a safe haven for radical Islamists and terrorists. We know already that a number of groups in the Azawad have affiliations with Al Qaeda, whose heart in Central Asia may have been destroyed but whose arms could still have far-reaching and deadly power. The Malian government is certainly ill-equipped (and not particularly willing) to evict the radicals from the north. So who should do it?

The United Nations Security Council has already given the go-ahead for foreign military intervention, but not many powers have stepped up to the plate. There is a lack of willingness on the part of the West, particularly the United States and France, to become very involved militarily in Mali. Both countries have significant interests at stake in the region, and so would benefit from driving out extremists. France has had a number of its citizens kidnapped by the radicals, and the United States certainly won’t be better off for allowing a pocket of Al Qaeda influence to fester and grow, especially in light of September’s Benghazi attacks.

But neither country seems willing to acknowledge that the chaos and violence incited by the Islamist regime will not be limited by borders, especially in the sweeping deserts and largely un-policed region of West Africa. Mali shares huge borders with Mauritania and Algeria, both of which could be vulnerable to attack and both of which could certainly suffer from refugee overflows and uncontained extremism and violence. If nothing is done to remove or reduce Islamist influence in northern Mali, it could become a launch pad for Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to wreak havoc across the region and even into Western Europe. Hillary Clinton herself said that northern Mali has become “a larger safe haven” that could allow terrorists “to extend their reach and their networks in multiple directions.”

This seems like a very contradictory approach. Even as the US says that terrorist factions based in northern Mali could become a grave threat if allowed to remain in power unchallenged, it refuses to commit militarily, and is reluctant even to commit to using attack drones in the future, a tactic problematic in our supposed ally Pakistan but likely to be much more straightforward and successful in the flat desert of northern Mali (see map).

This hesitation could be ascribed to a noble refusal to expand the so-called War on Terror into yet another country, but such praise would be misplaced. Unlike past actions in Iraq, Pakistan, or Yemen, military action has the go-ahead in Mali, not only from the national government of the country itself, but from the UNSC and the region more broadly. The US wouldn’t be haphazardly dropping missiles on a dubious international mandate, but rather would be cooperating with an overwhelmed and desperate government.

I’m not saying that the West needs to send 10,000 of its own soldiers (the rough UN estimate of the number of troops needed) into the fray, or even that it needs to send a fraction of those. Regional powers like Algeria, Nigeria, or Mauritania (not to mention Mali itself), perhaps along with the African Union, could take the lead, and the UN could contribute peacekeeping forces to make peace stick once it’s achieved. But the United States and France, both with a significant interest in excising the Islamists, can’t sit back and wait for others to solve the problem.

There isn’t just a moral incentive to dismantle this regime; there are strategic motives as well. The US should step up and use its technology and military power to help the international force that may soon take shape. We don’t need to have “boots on the ground,” but drones in the sky might not be a bad place to start. We can’t afford to wait for Mali to become another Afghanistan. North Africa seems only to be growing in significance, and American leadership would be wise to recognize this.

But this problem will require more than military might. If there’s anything that the West should have learned from our military excursions of the past decade, it’s that regional divisions and local grievances can’t be sorted out with airstrikes and Predator drones. Armed force will be needed to cripple the radical regime in the north, but ultimately Mali needs reconciliation to solve this problem. Foreign intervention should weaken the Islamists to the point that they have no choice but to join in real dialogue, and should protect the fragile interim government until it can get back on its feet and give the Azawad the attention it needs.

For that matter, the international community should give Mali the attention it needs as well. We’ll all be better off for it.

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Filed under Human Rights, International Focus, Military & Might, War & Peace

Islamophobia and Ignorance

Peter King, the man behind the recent "Muslim hearings." (Source: peteking.house.gov)

Earlier this month, Representative Peter King of New York held a hearing that was called to “investigate the radicalization of Muslims in the United States.” This sparked an uproar among religious and secular groups across the US, who were infuriated by what seems to be obvious bigotry.

King, who is pictured here, of course denies any such allegations. The man is adamant that this is not discrimination, and many people agree with him.

I have to admit that it’s an unavoidable (and unfortunate) fact that there tend to be more Islamist extremists than there are extremists in other major religions. (I pray that no one takes this in an offensive way!) But King’s approach to this problem of possibly-encroaching extremism is not just appallingly bigoted, but the wrong way to solve the issue.

First, the bigoted part. While it’s statistically true that there tend to be more Muslim extremists (at least here in the US) than those of other religions, it’s patently false that violent extremism is exclusive to any one religion. (Just take a look at Timothy McVeigh or Shoko Asahara, founder of the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult.) By claiming that Islamist extremism is the only real threat to America from religious groups (which he hasn’t necessarily explicitly said, but seems to be pretty heavily implied in his singular focus on Muslims), King is isolating and discriminating against a typically peaceful and law-abiding group of people simply based on their religion.

Now, to me it seems obvious that this is religious discrimination. King is essentially leveling his gavel against an entire group of people based on the actions of a very few individuals. This is a vast and offensive generalization of Islam and of Muslims. It’s understandable that Peter King would want to hold a hearing on religious violence in general. But by focusing exclusively on Muslims, King is not only ignoring the possibility of religious violence from other sectors, but unfairly focusing on a religion whose adherents are almost totally peaceful.

The implications here are more than simple issues of religious fairness though. Radical Islamist groups’ resentment toward the United States is often based largely on the perceived bigotry of Americans toward Muslims, and sadly there’s often a lot of truth to accusations of religious animosity against Muslims among Americans. Besides this, many non-extremist Muslims in the US feel victimized by some Americans’ anti-Islamic sentiments. Peter King’s recent actions do nothing but add fuel to the fires of disenfranchisement among American Muslims, and make Islam seem like a religion that has no place in America. Other countries, including the United Kingdom and France, are also making moves that alienate their Muslim inhabitants.

This alienation is not just wrong, but a violation of basic American and human rights. If the US claims to be a country based on “liberty and justice for all,” then its public servants, especially its federal level ones, cannot single out groups of people, whether or not those groups have a greater tendency toward extremism. Peter King, and any other politician who wants to look into the radicalization of any religious group, must do it in a way that is not exclusively focused on one group. The longer our country, and really any country (or person), continues to foster this kind of prejudice and religious ignorance, the greater our problems with extremism will become.

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Filed under Politics & Power, Religion & Reason

Crossing Qaddafi

The UN Security Council has decided to take action against Qaddafi. France has shown particular initiative.

The United Nations passed a vote on Thursday to begin enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya, as well as deciding to permit “all necessary actions” (code for military enforcement) to defend the civilian population of Libya from Moammar Qaddafi.

This is incredible news, and though it comes quite late in the day, the Libyan opposition movement has been jubilant about the UN’s much more official and pragmatic declaration of support. In fact, it would seem that French jets have already fired on at least one occasion against Qaddafi, and the US has launched missiles targeting his anti-air defenses. The current number of missiles launched at this post’s time of publication was 110.

Col. Qaddafi has been pushing the rebels back, city by city, towards the east, and has forced them as far as Benghazi, the current seat of rebel power. The declaration against Qaddafi was widely welcomed, and indeed celebrated by rebels, who see it as a somewhat late move but what could be a turning point for them against the dictator who runs the country.

In response to the UN’s decision, Qaddafi “declared a ceasefire.” I put this in quotes for two reasons. First, this ceasefire seems to have yet to materialize. Witnesses have been reporting violence in Benghazi and elsewhere even after the so-called peace. Second, how is it at all possible to trust Qaddafi at this point? He’s made such ridiculous claims as “I have all the Libyan people with me and I’m prepared to die. And they are prepared to die for me. Men, women and even children,” in a letter to President Obama. Qaddafi is hardly known for his powers of common sense and rationality, and it shows plainly in his assertions that all of Libya stands beside him. Would a man so willing to lie outright about the loyalty of his people be honest about a ceasefire? No, it seems obvious that Qaddafi’s words have utterly lost their meaning. A man can’t go from spluttering violent threats against his own civilians to saying that there is peace.

That said, I think Qaddafi still has a chance to step down or step aside. Now that the UN’s condemnation of his actions has taken a form stronger than words, Col. Qaddafi has a much shorter timer on his autocratic slaughter of his own people. With coalition forces beginning to hit his military, this dictator may begin to put his money where his mouth is (hopefully).

This seems to be an answer to prayer for the rebellion, who have been almost pleading for foreign intervention to stop the bloodshed. Their desires have largely fallen on deaf ears, particularly in America, so this development comes as a very welcome change for the opposition. And while there are still drawbacks to military involvement in yet another Arab conflict, it’s a good thing overall that serious steps are being taken to put an end to Qaddafi’s massacre of his own people. It’s time that the international community, especially the US, puts some real meaning behind the assertion that democracy is a basic right for all people.

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Filed under Military & Might, Revolutions & Revolts