Is Mali next?

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Is Mali next?

Confession time: I don't watch the debates.  Make no mistake, I am REALLY interested in them, and read the transcripts and every bit of analysis I can after they are over, but for some odd reason, I feel freakishly uncomfortable watching them.  I tried to watch the Indiana Governors debate two weeks ago and only made it about 3 minutes into the speech of our libertarian candidate (Rupert from Survivor if you happen to watch the show) before I had to punch out.  Ditto the Vice Presidential debate, although on that one I didn't even make it through the debate moderators instructions.  I don't know why they make me feel so uncomfortable, but I just can not watch them.

So anyway, it was interesting to me when I read about something that went down during the Foreign Policy debate the other night between President Obama and Mitt Romney.  Washington Post touched on it briefly:

Mali! It’s a testament to the emphasis on terrorism in the foreign policy debate — and the larger U.S. foreign policy conversation — that Mitt Romney name-checked this land-locked West African state in his first answer. He cited the rise of “al-Qaeda types” in the country as part of a warning that Islamist terrorists are, he says, on the rise. Ansar Dine, a violent extremist group, has taken over parts of Mali’s north as a consequence of the country’s larger political crisis.

Romney referenced Mali again a few minutes later, which has got to be a world record. Al-Qaeda and extremists are rising, he said, “with North Mali having been taken over by al-Qaeda,” also citing other examples.

Truth be told, I read a lot of news, and had it not been for my recent trip to Senegal (which you can read about in your December TAL Magazine when you get it) I wouldn't have known anything about Mali, but I ended up discussing the situation at length with my guide there, a gentleman (in the true sense) named Chereif.  He told me that Senegal is poised for the spread of terrorism to finally reach Senegal by way of Mali, it's eastern neighbor.  In contrast to many MIddle East and North African countries, Senagal (while Muslim) does not have the religious warfare that is marked elsewhere.  For instance, I went to a Catholic church in Dakar, and it was mostly unguarded.  I think there was one guy directing traffic, but no security guards.  That surprised me, but Chereif said that religion based violence is largely absent from the country.

None-the-less, Mali is getting bad, particularly in the north of that country.  And international experts are taking notice.  The Germans for instance made a statement about it this week:

Europe must help restore security in Mali, hit by an Islamist insurgency in its north, and could lend support through military trainingto an African-led mission, Germany's Foreign Minister said on Tuesday.

Guido Westerwelle said after talks in Berlin with the U.N.'s envoy to the Sahel, Romano Prodi, he was extremely worried about the situation.

"From the north of Mali you need to cross only one international border and you are at the Mediterranean. If the north collapses, if terrorist training camps spring up and it becomes a haven for global terrorism, this won't just endanger Mali and North Africa, it will also threaten us in Europe."

It really started to get sketchy earlier this year when Al Qaeda linked rebels attacked holy shrines in Timbuktu:

In an interview with the French news agency (AFP) Sunday, Fatou Bensouda called on Islamist rebels to stop the desecration of Mali’s religious sites. 

The hardline Islamists, who seized control of Timbuktu along with the rest of northern Mali three months ago, consider the shrines to be idolatrous and have destroyed seven tombs.

Witnesses say the al-Qaida-linked group Ansar Dine targeted the 15th-century Sidi Yahya mosque on Monday, tearing off the entrance door.  The door is considered sacred and was to remain closed until the end of the world.

This is one of those holy sites:

It reminds me a lot of the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban back in March of 2001.  AFP had eyewitnesses to the destruction in Timbuktu:

Crying "Allahu Akbar" (God is Greatest), the men carrying chisels and hoes smashed the tombs.

"There are many of us watching them destroy the mausoleum. It hurts but we can't do anything. These madmen are armed, we can't do anything but they will be cursed that is for sure," a journalist said on condition of anonymity.

He said the destruction at the Djingareyber cemetery ended in the late afternoon, with four tombs in total destroyed. The Islamists also destroyed earthenware jars and other artifacts around the tombs.

The cemetery is situated in the south of Timbuktu in the suburb of the eponymous Djingareyber mosque built from mud in 1327.

Another resident of Timbuktu, a former tour operator, said the Islamists had also threatened to destroy the ancient mosques.

"This morning (Sunday) the Islamists told us that if there are saints inside the mosques, they will also destroy these mosques."

It always amazes me how these terrorists view such things.  I just can't wrap my mind around how destroying ancient cultural, historical and religios sites actually helps their cause.  It's like book burnings, it's just never a good idea. 

So will Mali be the next country that the international community has to engage in?  I hope we do if it comes down to it, but recent history would indicate it won't come out well.  But if we try appeasement, then we can sit back and watch them destroy historical artifacts and priceless antiquities.  I'm not much of an interventionist generally, but I really hope there is some way to train our African partners up enough that they can stop this spread.  Because Mali is in the fight of it's life, and no one thinks it will end there.




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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.