U.S., allies marshaling African proxies for fight against terrorism

Ansar Dine militants in Mali
"A quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing."

That was how British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain saw the Nazi threat against the Czech Sudetenland in 1938, a sentiment freshly evoked among war-weary citizens as the United States and its allies ponder moves to oust Islamic extremists from northern Mali, a country most Americans couldn't find on a map.

GlobalFocusU.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and diplomatic counterparts from France have been shopping around a plan to train and equip West African troops to drive out the Al Qaeda-aligned militants who hold sway over a swath of northern Mali the size of Texas. Ultraorthodox Muslims this year hijacked a long-simmering rebellion by ethnic Tuaregs and began imposing an extreme version of Islamic law once in power. In July, they took axes to "idolatrous" cultural treasures in Timbuktu, provoking worldwide horror at the destruction.

Like Afghanistan before 9/11, when Taliban collusion with Al Qaeda made the country a training ground for terrorism, Mali left in the grip of militant Islamists runs the risk of becoming the next launch pad for attacks on the United States and its allies.

U.S. interest in rooting out Ansar Dine and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb from northern Mali has intensified in the seven weeks since a suspected terrorist attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. The Al Qaeda affiliates in Mali are believed to have played at least a supportive role in the Benghazi attack.

"The Benghazi event, with the murder of Chris Stevens, has really precipitated American intervention. It's turned the tables in the region," said Ghislaine Lydon, a history professor at UCLA and expert on precolonial Northwest Africa.

Lydon sees the emerging Western plan to liberate northern Mali with African proxies as part of a wider strategy employed by the U.S. Africa Command based in Stuttgart, Germany, to train regional troops to confront and contain extremist movements.

"We really don't know much about these new groups," she said of factions like Ansar Dine, a fundamentalist Muslim movement led by Tuareg militant Iyad ag Ghaly. Analysts see him as an opportunist who has betrayed his roots in the culturally rich region under Ansar Dine control, the result of a longtime alliance with late Libyan strongman Moammar Kadafi. When Ghali and others returned to Mali after Kadafi's demise last year, they brought weapons and vehicles to bolster the Tuareg rebellion, then hijacked it after toppling the government's feeble grip on the north, Lydon said.

With the threat of another extremist faction taking root in the region, Clinton met with Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika on Monday, hoping to recruit him to the effort to prepare a Mali intervention force of 6,000 or more Africans backed by U.S. and European logistics. 

Bouteflika has been reluctant to agree to any direct role, but reportedly is amenable to more strictly policing Algeria's 1,200-mile border with Mali to prevent the targeted militants from taking refuge across the porous frontier and waiting out the invasion.

Bouteflika, Clinton told reporters in Algiers, discussed with her "the many complicated factors that have to be addressed to deal with the internal insecurity in Mali." Those likely include stabilizing the  government in Bamako, the capital; making alliances with moderate Tuaregs now under the extremists' thumb; and ensuring that all involved are fighting for the same outcome: a united, stable and democratic Mali.

While Bouteflika has to move cautiously in view of his country’s own struggle against Islamic militants, "he has started to come around to the notion of military intervention,” said Anouar Boukhars, a Middle East scholar with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Boukhars predicted that it will take months to work out a common strategy for training soldiers of the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, and integrating them into the beleaguered Mali forces. It will probably take until March to organize intervention, he said.

Resistance to even arm's-length military action is considerable in Washington and Europe, with politicians arguing that Mali’s conflict hasn't threatened anyone outside its borders, at least not yet.

"But the neighbors are troubled by what is happening,” Boukhars said. "There’s this precedent that a separatist group can create its own state and get away with it. There’s a growing sense that something has to be done. The question is how to do it.”

Washington has been stepping up support to the region. Troops from the United States and France, the former colonial ruler of Mali, staged joint military exercises with ECOWAS this summer. U.S. drone  surveillance has increased to track militants' movements across North Africa and the Middle East.

A U.N. Security Council resolution on Oct. 12 gave the go-ahead for coordinated action to liberate the north. European, U.S. and African diplomats have until Nov. 26 to provide the world body with details of how they plan to do it.

The objective, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said, is to “ensure that Al Qaeda has no place to hide.”

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Follow Carol J. Williams at www.twitter.com/cjwilliamslat

Photo:  Fighters from the fundamentalist Islamic group Ansar Dine stand guard as they prepare to publicly lash a policeman accused of adultery in Timbuktu, Mali, in August. Credit: Associated Press

 
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