My own personal connection to Mali is less than negligible. I was in a plane that stopped at the airport in Bamako on its way to Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Any traveler of integrity will tell you, airports don’t count. If you’ve only been at the airport, even if you got off the plane and walked around, you haven’t been there. So I have less curiosity about Mali than Cote d’Ivoire, where I spent some days working, or Kenya, or South Sudan, Zimbabwe or Rwanda.
But the world doesn’t care what you like or what you want, and for the past 10 years, the Western and African worlds have made Mali a place a news guy had to pay attention to.
If you had to find Mali on a map, and zoomed around West Africa looking for it, you’d say, when you found it, this place is in the middle of nowhere. Which is exactly the problem. Mali has a lot of nowhere, impenetrable forests and jungles, vast expanses of desert, punctuated by craggy, cave-filled mountains. Guerilla country or in current intel-speak, “a black hole.”
But right in the middle of what were once called trade routes, but are now called trafficking routes, because what travels along ‘em — guerillas’ and terrorists’ stock in trade, — illegal cigarettes, illegal drugs, off-the-books weapons, sometimes hostages whatever can be re-sold to support the revolution. So that put Mali at the heart of many strategic maps of West Africa.
Over the past decade, Mali has filled up with guerillas. Affiliates of both Al Qaeda and the Islamic State are active there. Which is why the French military has been there since 2013, and there are UN peacekeepers, and a regional defense force made up of elements of 5 local national armies.
Together these forces have just 2 goals:
#1 eradicate, or contain the threat of global Islamic Terrorism in the Sahel, the horizontal strip across Africa south of the Sahara Desert; and
#2 help Mali put together an effective, honest government that can, eventually, defend itself.
Neither of those goals are close to being reached, but at least on the anti-terrorist side, the number and severity of terrorist attacks seems to be reduced. On the governance side, and that includes civil administration, military effectiveness, and observance of human rights and rule of law, most report cards are grim.
The French need help in sustaining their national rescue mission now in its 4th year, and they want a chunk of it to come from America. So far, President Trump hasn’t signed on, although the US military does work with the French Mali mission on everything from aerial refueling and satellite and signals intelligence.
Michael Shurkin is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. He previously worked in the Intelligence Community, where he served as a political analyst with a focus on West Africa and Afghanistan.