As inauguration day nears, debate has begun about the most pressing challenges facing the Obama Administration in 2013. While Syria is at the top of most people’s lists, the U.S. military has begun calling attention to the African nation of Mali, which U.S. AFRICOM Commander General Carter F. Ham called “the greatest threat to regional stability more broadly across Africa, into Europe and the United States as well.” Looking closely, Mali is likely to be a case where there is no single solution to the difficult mix of security and humanitarian challenges, but one where a “smart power” approach using diplomacy and development alongside defense may offer the best chance at preventing the need for military intervention.
Once a U.S. partner as a Millennium Challenge Corporation compact country, Mali has unfortunately seen significant violence since a coup d’état overthrew the democratically elected government last March (leading the MCC to terminate its compact with Mali). The presence of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (the Al Qaeda affiliate responsible for the murder of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi in September) in the northern region highlights the challenges facing the U.S. and its West African partners. General Ham noted in his alarming assessment that, “As each day goes by, Al Qaeda and other organizations are strengthening their hold in northern Mali.” The ongoing violence threatens to spill beyond Mali’s borders and has caused people to flee their homes, leading to “large population displacement inside of Mali and to refugee flows in neighboring countries, further straining the ability of both displaced people and host communities to cope with increased food insecurity,” according to USAID Assistant Administrator for Africa Earl Gast in early December.
The State Department has already taken action, providing more than $445 million to the Sahel region, with $119 million of those funds supporting emergency needs in Mali and refugees outside of Mali. In addition to the humanitarian assistance, the State Department is working together with government agencies to provide guidance to West African nations in their fight against terrorism. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted in October that, “We are using every tool we can to help our partners fight terrorism and meet their security challenges. We recently embedded additional Foreign Service Officers with regional expertise into the U.S. Africa Command to better integrate our approach. Across the region, diplomats, development experts, and military personnel are working hand in hand.”
A key aspect of this government wide-approach is the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP), led by the State Department which allows the Department of Defense, the State Department, and USAID to coordinate efforts that enhance the capacity-building of regional partners to fight Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. This partnership supports developing civil society and governance programs, but also is “aimed at making our partners more capable of combating the terrorist threat in their territories, and providing better security for their people,” according to Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs Amanda Dory.
A “smart power” approach that builds capacity in Mali to reduce violence and deal with the humanitarian crisis may be our best bet to improving the situation. As General Ham noted, “We think we do that best by strengthening the defense capabilities of African nations so they are increasingly capable of providing not only for their own security, but contributing to regional security and stability as well.” Enhancing our partners’ capacity to respond to terrorism demonstrates America’s commitment to global engagement in order to protect our own national security interests and those of our partners while preventing the need for U.S. military intervention in the future.
Update on the U.S. response to Mali (January 15, 2013):
The State Department said on Monday that it is prepared to use the Africa Contingency Operations Training and Assistance (ACOTA) program to assist with peacekeeping efforts in Mali. The goal of this program is to “to enhance the capacities and capabilities of its African Partner Countries, regional institutions, and the continent’s peacekeeping resources as a whole so that they can plan for, train, deploy, and sustain sufficient quantities of professionally competent peacekeepers to meet conflict transformation requirements with minimal non-African assistance.” ACOTA allows the U.S. to support a “smart power” approach of enhancing the capacity of allies without “boots on the ground.”