As the fighting in Mali continues, U.S. politicians continue to try to define America’s role in the conflict. Early this week, Senator Christopher Coons, Chairman of Senate Foreign Relations Committee on African Affairs, traveled to Mali on the first congressional delegation visit since France’s involvement in the country.
The delegation discussed U.S. assistance with French and African military officials. The U.S. currently supplies airlift and fuel aid, as well a small number of troops in Niger that are assisting the French intelligence gathering efforts.
Although U.S. law prohibits direct military assistance to Malian forces because of last year’s military coup, Senator Coons said in Bamako on Monday that the U.S. could provide increased military support to Mali after “a full restoration of democracy,” according to Reuters.
Meanwhile, the debate continues in Washington about how to handle alleged terrorists affiliated with Islamic extremist groups captured in war-torn Mali. This most recent theater of the “global War on Terror” raises questions in the grey areas between policies of war crimes and domestic criminal justice.
On Friday, Chad had suffered the heaviest losses so far in the French-led campaign to drive Islamists from northern Mali after a battle in which it said 13 Chadian soldiers and 65 Islamist rebels were killed.
Dawit Giorgis, a former senior government official of Ethiopia now working as a policy maker in the U.S., said that American aid should concentrate on establishing real democracy in Mali. He said this would solve the problems of detaining alleged terrorists by providing Malians their own system, while also reducing the possibility for continued corruption within the Malian forces.
“When we had the coup last time in Mali, it was the officers who were trained and educated here that conducted the coup there, and they were corrupt. The military was utterly corrupted because it was working in a corrupt framework, in a corrupt democratic government, in a corrupt democratic system,” Giorgis said.
Giorgis said the upcoming July elections in Mali should be the focus of increased U.S. assistance.
“I think before providing any kind of support to the Malian government or the Malian military, we should make sure they are able to have a proper… fair and free election, Giorgis said.
“America should be sending a strong force there, civilian institutions that can observe or that can help in establishing the election system.”
Tensions in Mali have escalated rapidly in the last two years, after a military coup of the elected government and an influx of extreme Islamist organizations to the region. In January, the French military deployed to Mali to try to eradicate the loose collection of extremist organizations, while protecting people and the culture of Mali, as well as their unique African branch of Islam.
Raha Wala, an advocacy counsel in the Law and Security Program at Human Rights First, said that because these groups do not look like the organized party of al-Qaeda that we faced on Sept. 11, limited American involvement would be best. He said the French and ultimately the Malians, should be involved in detaining violent individuals, while the increased U.S. military presence in Mali should come in drones and other “kinetic operations.”
Wala recommends proceeding with caution in the region, as Senator Coons’s so-called “full restoration” of a democracy in Mali is going to be “incredibly difficult,” as it has been for the past ten years in Afghanistan.
He said of the senator’s statement, “I think we have to be very careful about expanding military direct kinetic operations in other parts of the world that may be unrelated to ongoing armed conflicts.”
Giorgis warned that for the U.S., an armed conflict in the region could be looming. “The problem is no longer just Mali, but the region… America has direct interest in Cameroon, Nigeria, and the problem in Mali has proliferated and come into these areas,” he said. “America may be forced to intervene.”
(Sarah Shew is an intern in Al Arabiya’s Washington, DC bureau)