Mali: The Case for US Action

French soldiers patrol in armored vehicles, in the outskirts of Sevare, Mali, some 620 kms (385 miles) north of Bamako, Wedne
French soldiers patrol in armored vehicles, in the outskirts of Sevare, Mali, some 620 kms (385 miles) north of Bamako, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013. The U.S. airlift of French forces to Mali to fight Islamic extremists is expected to go on for another two weeks, Pentagon officials said, as hundreds of African troops from Nigeria, Togo, Burkina Faso and Senegal are now joining the French-led intervention. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

Susan Rice, America's ambassador to the United Nations, is apparently trying to build support in the Security Council for a UN peacekeeping force for Mali. That would come after the French have set back the Islamist militants that have threatened to seize control of the entire West African country. Rice's idea, while fraught with traps, is worth considering.

Mali has come to the world's attention in the last few months as a sad and frustrating basket case that is suffering a harsh civil war. The combatants are the official Malian state and army, mainly led by black Africans of the south, mainly Muslim, and the ethnically mixed "salafists" -- hard fundamentalist Muslims -- that have essentially occupied the northern desert of Mali. The groups who have gingerly coalesced in the north include the Tuaregs, a Berber-origin group that has long agitated for a separate state or autonomy, and the growing presence of al Qaeda and similar jihadists.

Once its colony, France intervened in Mali this month with about 2,300 troops and a substantial amount of air power to drive back, successfully, the salafists' offensive south. Without the French action, it is conceivable that the entire country would be captured by the Islamists, as the Malian army and government are weak and demoralized.

Now comes Susan Rice's proposal, and what are we to make of it? If it was "floated" in the Security Council, it likely has the backing of President Obama, so we are already a little bit pregnant. She tweeted a few days ago that the "U.S. fully supports French efforts to dislodge Mali's safe haven" and that "France is acting at Mali's request" and with the backing of the Security Council. The details of a peacekeeping action -- how many peacekeepers, under whose command -- are unknown; certainly the rules of engagement are a crucial detail, as many peacekeeping missions in the past have been too tightly restricted in their use of force.

Interventions by Western powers anywhere, but particularly in predominantly Muslim countries, are automatically viewed nowadays as a slippery slope and perhaps even hopelessly nostalgic for the efficacy of imperial power. It's worth noting that the nasty turn in Mali's fortunes coincide with the Libya "liberation" that loosed weapons and the proverbial angry young men upon Mali and other neighbors. Economic reform fostered by the IMF has had some positive effects, but was not a panacea -- it remains a very poor country.

What drives the blue helmet option are two things. First, West Africa has been the scene of two decades of carnage and instability, with some of the worst civil wars we have witnessed anywhere in the world. The region has made considerable progress toward stability, but remains in a parlous state. Piracy is now rampant in the Gulf of Guinea, a major source of oil for Europe and the United States. Nigeria is a powder keg. Cote d'Ivoire remains fragile. Introducing more sources of strife into the region by allowing al Qaeda and its cohort to take over Mali, if that's what's at stake, is a direct blow to U.S. interests, even as Mali seems a distant and marginal player on the world stage. Some will argue with this, and the argument is a good one to have, but a West Africa in turmoil is not a good thing for us, much less the West Africans.

The second reason for considering a peacekeeping intervention is the savagery -- there's no other word -- of the jihadists who had been gaining ground before President Hollande of France ordered his military to intervene. An account in the New York Times by Karima Bennoune, a professor of law at UC-Davis, provides the harrowing prospect of what would happen to this country, and possibly much of the wider region, should the jihadists come to power in Mali. "There are theocratic show trials in Arabic, a language many residents do not speak," she says of Gao, one city seized by the militants. "The fundamentalists focus on teaching the predominantly Muslim population of Gao 'how to be Muslim.' Like al Shabab in Somalia and the Taliban in Afghanistan, they have a morality brigade that patrols the city, checking who is not wearing a sufficient veil and whose telephone sins with a musical ringtone. Speaking to a woman in public is an offense; this ban has caused such terror that some men flee in fear if they simply see a woman on the street."

This is, as she reminds us, an issue of basic human rights. Many, perhaps a large majority, in Mali welcomed the French. Do we send in the Marines at every atrocity? Well, no. But what Ambassador Rice seems to be exploring is to send in a peacekeeping force once the French have defeated the militants. Already, today, there are reports that the Tuareg group, Ansar Dine, has split in two and the splinter group's leader is seeking talks with the French government. If this degrading of the militants continues, a strong ceasefire that demobilizes the militants could be administered by the UN, with some logistical and financial support by the United States.

Such an initiative, however, should be scrutinized for its longer-term viability and how it integrates African troops from the region, already joining the French, to provide broader security. Human rights of Tuaregs and other ethnic minorities need protecting. A legitimate government needs reconstituting -- there was a coup last spring -- and better leadership and training for the army.

What we do know from any number of interventions, including that in Libya, is that a durable commitment to providing security and sustainable economic development is key. The Tuareg's aspiration for a separate state or autonomy is a tricky matter. Granting them such gains after a nasty uprising is not something the U.N. should acquiesce to, nor is it smart to agree to talks with anyone who takes up the gun. After order is restored, including the Malian state's control over the northern provinces, some dialogue about the Tuaregs clearly must be fostered.

These are enormous tasks and the U.N. may not be up to it. A half-hearted or poorly designed intervention can create more problems than it solves, so this is something to think through carefully. The disfavor for intervention among American politicians and the public is understandable and a good restraint. But occasionally making a stand against atrocity and extremism, particularly when it's in danger of spreading, is a worthy goal for a great power. Mali just might be the place.