The Way Forward for Mali
It is critical to stability in the Maghreb and the Sahel region that terrorism in Mali be dealt with, both militarily and politically. The current situation in Mali cannot be separated from the issues in the Maghreb and the Sahel. Extremists are breaking down the traditional tribal cultural bonds that have held society together in the Sahel region. This breakdown has far-reaching consequences for future generations. If we do not begin to reverse this trend immediately, we will have an exponentially greater problem to deal with in the near future, and much more serious long-term effects. It is critical that we apply equal pressure across the entire region in order to deal with terrorism.
As French forces have promptly intervened to help avert the movement of Islamists toward the south of Mali, there is a growing concern that the militants will spread into neighboring countries. Regional forces have been deployed alongside the French troops, which gives hope that the military campaign will succeed. There is also hope that the United States might soon restore direct political engagement with the Malian government.
The recipe for restoring and maintaining a democratic Mali requires holding elections, the return of Malian administration and army in the north, political stability and accountability, and the homecoming of displaced Malians.
The way forward in Mali will begin with a Sovereign National Conference similar to that of 1991. This national dialogue will put in place the right political environment as a precursor to free and fair elections.
Malians have a tradition of picking leaders through electoral processes, not by consensus, even when the outcome is less than perfect. When the country is unified, the authority of the state will need to be strengthened to allow cohabitation with decentralized local governance.
We must also consider the humanitarian situation. Humanitarian efforts should be balanced with the need for displaced Malians to return to their homes. They have been driven to camps because they do not want to live under Shariah law. After a successful military intervention, it is important politically that they become part of the solution by returning to their residences. Humanitarian assistance must be balanced in this regard.
There is a legitimate and valid need for the international community to continue to engage on the holding of elections. The current transitional government has shown no great eagerness to hold elections that might remove them from power. Deadlines must be established and commitments to those deadlines. Leverage can be found for both the military and political solutions required to restore Mali to a fully functioning democracy.
Recovering the north is not merely a logistical support effort. In the post-coup environment, there are still some political levers that need to be applied. Support for the Malian army requires not just logistics and training, but also restoring some of our critical relationships.
A group of generals ousted in the coup could play a critical advisory role in retaking the north. In particular, the former Malian Joint Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabriel Poudiougou had a good working relationship with Maj. Gen. David Hogg, commander of U.S. Army Africa, and is well respected by the U.S. Embassy. He was recognized to be a good player with U.S. Army Africa and had not been tainted by some of the corruption that was apparent elsewhere. He should be brought back into the process of taking Mali forward militarily. It is imperative that some of this lost leadership be leveraged back into the process.
The political and military process must be inclusive, not exclusive. This inclusiveness in a small area will be necessary for the political aspects that must drive the reunification of northern Mali.
Accountability must be the principle that underpins our support. Political corruption was what led to the coup. Military corruption followed that political corruption. As Mali receives material support, it is imperative that the United States, as a major stakeholder in the process, should have a mechanism in place to monitor the flow of this equipment and material to ensure that corruption does not subvert the effort.
Deadlines for an election tied to material and other support for the military effort, along with necessary reforms, will start us down a productive path toward restored democracy and reformed accountability. This road is complex, but it is worth traveling, and it is a journey that must begin immediately.