Stop a dozen people on the street — any street in America — and ask them where Mali is. Very few, if any, will recognize Mali as a country in Africa, much less where in Africa, or why, despite its lack of international stature, it merits closer scrutiny than Washington has been giving it.
Although most of us may instantly recognize Europe, Japan and China on a blank atlas, generally speaking our collective grasp of world geography (not to mention foreign cultures and history) is tenuous at best. It typically takes a serious military situation involving American forces to draw our attention to far-away places with strange-sounding names.
Think about it. That’s how most of us learned all about Vietnam and even the tiny island nation of Grenada, in the southern Caribbean, to cite just two examples.
So what’s the big deal about Mali? Just this: The Republic of Mali, a former French colony in northwestern Africa with a population of just less than 15 million, is rapidly becoming an important training ground for anti-Western terrorists, including groups associated with al-Qaida.
In fact, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, one of the rebel organizations, actually conquered a large part of northern Mali last year and in response France dispatched troops to help out the beleaguered government. But the government, which has been notoriously corrupt, is part of the problem.
On Monday, suspected Islamist militants blew up a bridge near Gao, a northern Mali town, according to the BBC.
In the eyes of its ideological and political enemies, Mali’s positive posture toward the West in general and the United States in particular (because of large financial grants, Washington hasn’t been totally ignoring Mali) is also a problem. Extremists, using terror to impose their Islamist beliefs (including an insistence on drastic Sharia law) on any secular nation in the region, don’t applaud the millions of dollars sent to Mali by the Americans.
This ideological and military conflict has been building up for years even as the United States has been understandably preoccupied with threats originating in the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan. It isn’t that the White House and the Pentagon don’t recognize the danger lurking in Mali; it’s just that their primary focus has, of necessity, been elsewhere.
In the latest issue of The Atlantic, Yochi Dreazen, one of the magazine’s editors, describes a bitter dispute, about a decade ago, between a Pentagon analyst and the American ambassador to Mali, back when Mali was, to most of us, even more obscure than it is now.
In Dreazen’s account, the Pentagon official (Gen. Charles “Chuck” Wald, now retired) had studied the worsening situation in Mali and concluded that the best way to deal with it would be to either send in American B-52 bombers, launch air strikes by F-16 fighters or even deploy a team of specially trained troops to capture or kill the person he believed was leading a rebel group.
But the ambassador, Vicki Huddleston, vigorously disagreed. She doubted the reliability of Ward’s intelligence data, didn’t share his confidence in the identity of the target and especially feared the likely consequences of an American strike on African soil.
“Wald seemed to think you can carry out kinetic strikes without cost, but they can radicalize people on the ground,” she told Dreazen. “They do have a cost.”
That long-ago disagreement reflects the kind of difficulties Washington typically faces when it attempts to deal wisely with situations as murky as the one in Mali. But that doesn’t diminish the potential (and serious) threat to American interests that is emerging there.
One problem is that in campaigning for the presidency of the United States, candidates seldom are preoccupied with the details, or even the scale, of potential threats gaining strength in such normally obscure (to Americans) places such as Mali, Somalia, Nigeria and Chad, and, significantly, neither are the voters.
That’s certainly understandable, but it is also regrettable, because although domestic issues naturally draw the most attention, too often it is the situations in these otherwise overlooked nations that wind up occupying a great deal of a president’s precious time. And that’s why it would be wise for Americans to become more informed about foreign affairs.
Al Hutchison is a retired journalist and former member of The Tampa Tribune Editorial Board.