UNITED NATIONS ― Regions of a vast landlocked country, remote but strategic, has fallen under the control of al-Qaida terrorists and fundamentalist forces. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled a regime which persecutes women, imposes stringent Sharia law, and desecrates and destroys ancient towns and even mosques. The outside world has shrugged off this simmering crisis. Afghanistan 2001? No the West African state of Mali today.
Situated on the southern tier of the Sahara, Mali has been torn asunder by armed al-Qaida-aligned separatists. Last year after following a coup d' etat against the central government in Bamako, fundamentalist factions took advantage of the chaos and started a swift but decisive campaign to seize the north of the country, capturing the legendary city of Timbuktu. Despite Timbuktu being the crossroads of ancient Muslim culture, commerce and religion, the militants, as with the Afghan Taliban in power, created an austere form of Islam, thus desecrating mosques and burning scrolls and ushering in a reign of darkness.
As with Afghanistan a decade ago, few took notice nor cared. The former French colony was isolated enough to cause little alarm. Moreover the fractious central government Bamako stood little change to militarily confront the well-armed and motivated rebels, which are composed of disaffected Tuareg tribesmen and more lethally the Ansar Dine movement, the region's al-Qaida affiliate. France, in the midst of a presidential election, and with little appetite for this adventure, simply shrugged.
Significantly the security situation in the North has deteriorated. In an urgent briefing to the Security Council, Undersecretary General Jeffrey Feltman asserted, "Gross human rights abuses continue to be perpetuated against the population in the north of the country including cases of summary and extrajudicial execution, sexual and gender based violence, recruitment and use of child soldiers and torture." He stated, "Ansar Dine has continued its destruction of historical, cultural and holy sites in Timbuktu."
Feltman added, "On the humanitarian front over 412,000 persons have been forced to flee northern Mali… an estimated five million persons have been affected by the conflict."
In a turn of understatement, a U.N. report adds, "Despite concerted international efforts the political landscape in Mali remains complex and fragmented."
In December the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution which among other things, authorized military intervention by an African Union force to retake the North in concert with the central Mali government. Assembling the force, and surmounting the logistical nightmares to even get to the remote rebellious regions, and overall support for the African force will fall to the "international partners," namely the Europeans and the U.S.
Given the holiday season and the American "fiscal cliff" melodrama, few took notice, but when the African Union chairman, boldly called for a NATO style intervention as in Afghanistan to fight the Islamists, keen observers were jolted into reality. Calling the Mali conflict a "global crisis" he called for NATO intervention along the lines of Afghanistan. He said that NATO forces should fight alongside the African units.
The Security Council has again "expressed grave concern over the reported military movements and attacks by terrorist and extremist groups in the north of Mali… This serious deterioration of the situation threatens even more the stability and integrity of Mali."
While Ansar Dine and the Tuareg tribal militants are not large in number, they're spread over a region the size of France. The proposed African Union contingent of 3,300 would be outclassed, outgunned and lost in the vastness mirroring the shortfall with the peacekeeping operation in Darfur. The force is set for deployment in September.
Realistically the mission is precisely tailored to the famed French Foreign Legion, who has both the combat skills and logistical capacity for quick insertion and rapid operations.
Historically under both Gaullist and even Socialist governments, France would have long ago initiated a lightening military intervention in its former colony and the rebellion would have likely been settled.
But as the Mali crisis reached its crescendo last spring, France was in the midst of contentious presidential campaign and focused on domestic issues. Following nearly six months of dithering, the Socialist President Francois Hollande has deployed military units and aircraft to finally strike the rebels.
European governments are concerned that an entrenched radical Islamic regime could have a political spillover effect into North Africa and create a terrorist base threatening Europe.
While some NATO members, most likely France and the U.S. and a few others will participate behind the scenes or in the skies in the Mali operation along with the African Union troops, it is unlikely, unwarranted and unwise to insert a large NATO multi-national force into this West African imbroglio which is rife with ethnic, religious and political fault lines.
John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of ''Transatlantic Divide; USA/Euroland Rift.''