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Q&A: The importance of being Mali

The first question at the October 22 U.S. presidential debate, also known as the foreign police debate, was about the Mideast.

The first answer, from former Gov. Mitt Romney, ticked through several Mideastern countries and one that wasn’t. “Mali has been taken over, the northern part of Mali,” he warned, “by al-Qaida type individuals.” He returned to Mali later, saying it had been “taken over by al-Qaida.”

Foreign policy professionals, at least the ones in my Twitter feed, scoffed at Romney’s answer. Mali is not considered part of the Mideast; it’s in West Africa and “al-Qaida type individuals” doesn’t seem like best way to describe the rebels who have, in fact, seized the country’s northern half.

That’s not to pick on Romney. Mali, after all, has long been an obscure country to most Americans, little-known or discussed even after its crisis began last year. But now that crisis is becoming more important. Some very bad people have taken over the entire northern half of a very big country. This weekend, the French military sent in troops and made bombing runs to halt the rebels’ advance. More countries are talking about getting involved.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the Mali story, and maybe a little sheepish about admitting that you too thought it was in the Mideast, then these basic answers to your most basic questions should help.

Q: What is Mali?

A: Mali is a country in West Africa. It is very large but very poor. Centuries ago, it used to be a center of culture, knowledge and wealth. The Malian town of Timbuktu is popular with tourists for its history, or at least used to be until Islamist rebels took it over. Mali’s music is some of the best in Africa.

Q: Isn’t Mali one of those countries with weird, made-up borders that are always getting it into trouble?

A: Well, all national borders are in some sense artificial, but yes. About 130 years ago, European leaders thought it would be a great idea to see who could conquer more of Africa.

France already had some colonies in North and West Africa, which it expanded to include vast swaths of the continent’s western half. It divided that expanse into various regions, largely for administrative purposes.

But France moved the borders around a few times, because why not? When colonialism finally ended after World War II, France decided that the new, independent countries should just keep the regional borders it had already put in place. No, it was not a very good idea.

Q: So is this like Iraq, where the post-colonial borders forced different groups of people, who historically had not gotten along, to co-exist?

A: Sort of, yeah. The Niger River cuts through the country. The southwest part of the country is more populous and developed. The capital city, Bamako, is there.

Most of the residents in the southwest and along the Niger River are black-skinned, though not all are of the same ethnicity. The northern half of the country has historically been more diverse.

The vast Saharan expanse is mainly populated by ethnic Tuaregs, nomadic peoples who consider themselves white-skinned and who also live in the central region.

The Tuaregs in Mali and in neighboring countries have long fought for autonomy, including a violent but failed 1990s uprising. They tried again in early 2012 and partially succeeded, declaring that northern Mali is now an independent nation called Azawad. That was the start of the crisis still ongoing today.

Q: This sounds familiar. I heard that this whole crisis happened because of the war in Libya. Is that true?

A: That’s one part of it. For decades, Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi cultivated close ties with the Tuareg, whom he used both to harass his neighbors and, often, as mercenaries.

When Libyans rose up in 2011, Qadhafi deployed Tuareg fighters against his own people. But when his regime started to fall later that year, the Tuaregs went home to Mali.

The already formidable fighters were now equipped with training, weapons and, in some cases, a Qadhafi-bred hatred of the West and of their own governments. They put all of those to use in rebelling against their government.

Actually there’s another really important factor that’s not related to Libya. In March 2012, some mid-level officers in the Malian military staged a coup in Bamako, toppling the democratically elected government. With the capital in chaos, the Tuareg rebellion that had begun in January quickly swept across the north.

Q: This is getting really complicated. Can we take a music break?

A: Good idea. Mali has an amazing musical tradition. Sadly, the Islamist rebels have outlawed music.

Q: I hear a lot about al-Qaida in Mali. Leon Panetta talked about it. What’s the story there?

A: OK, so, there are actually four different groups of rebels in northern Mali right now.

Four different rebel groups? You have to be kidding me.

Now you’re starting to grasp how crazy this whole mess is. You know those Tuareg rebels I mentioned earlier? The ones who declared that northern Mali is now an independent state? They’re called the Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, or the MNLA, and they’re considered relatively secular. But not long after they announced their independence, extremists within their own movement started to emerge.

Now the MNLA has been marginalized within its own rebellion, largely replaced by two breakaway Islamist groups: Ansar Dine and the dramatically named “Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa,” also known as MOJWA. Ansar Dine, the better-known of the two, has recruited Arab fighters from a group that might sound familiar: al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

The link between Ansar Dine and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb is not totally clear. Also unclear is their link to the “central” al-Qaida organization better known to Americans. But they are all cruel, imposing extreme social restrictions and barbaric punishments on, for example, a woman who served a glass of water to a man.

Q: So who cares about all this? Literally, tell me, who are the people who care and why.

A: Well, France cares. French voters seem to feel a sense of responsibility for their former colony; President Francois Hollande’s decision to lead a unilateral military intervention has been popular in France. France says it’s worried about terrorism and humanitarian harm.

The U.S. also worries about terrorism. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said yesterday, “We have a responsibility to make sure that al-Qaida does not establish a base for operations in North Africa and Mali.” And there’s actually been a quiet American mission to northern Mali for years to train local counterterrorism forces, which was a pretty big failure.

Neighboring African countries care, which may be why they’ve promised thousands of troops to help fight the rebels. Some care because they too have Tuareg or other nomadic populations. Some care, such as neighboring Nigeria, the regional leader, because of concern about Islamist extremism and militancy. Most of all, the people of Mali care. The intervention has so far been enormously popular there, believe it or not.

Q: So is the U.S. going to join the French invasion force?

A: It sure doesn’t look likely, at least not at the moment. The U.S. wanted France to hold off for another nine or so months and to work through the United Nations, but French leaders worried that the rebels were simply advancing too quickly so they acted unilaterally. They’re expecting to be reinforced by neighboring African states, but no Western country has offered troops.

Q: Hi, there’s too much text so I skipped to the bottom to find out the big take-away. What’s going to happen?

A: The two big models that people talk about for Mali right now are Afghanistan and Cote d’Ivoire. Call them the pessimist’s view and the optimist’s view.

The pessimistic case is that, like Afghanistan, it could turn into a costly, open-ended conflict that ultimately fails to fix a failed state.

The pessimists point out that Mali’s north is about the same size of Afghanistan, a vast, formidable desert that the rebels know well and outsiders do not. They also point out that the invasion could rally sympathetic Islamists to the rebels’ cause, as in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Hollande has promised to keep his troops there for as long as it takes, which could be a while.

The optimistic view is that France has deep experience in West Africa, where it has conducted unilateral military interventions before. It did so twice in Cote d’Ivoire, right next door. France intervened first in 2002, to impose peace on an increasingly vicious civil war, and again in 2011 to preempt another war by toppling the president, who had refused to leave office after losing the election. It wasn’t the storming of Normandy, exactly, but it wasn’t a total disaster, either.