Last month, the U.S. provided support to the French forces in Mali that temporarily rolled back Islamist radicals who have controlled northern Mali for the past year. On Feb.18, Sen. Chris Coons, Chairman of the Senate’s Africa Sub-committee, said the U.S. should resume military aid to Mali as soon as elections are held there. On Feb. 22, the President notified Congress - without explanation - that 40 US military personnel have already deployed to next-door Niger. Unnamed Pentagon officials told the media that the 40 troops represent the first of 300 headed for Niger to operate and defend two Predator surveillance drones. I must have missed the public debate over this decision.
For decades, a hodgepodge of Arab and Tuareg fighters, Islamist fanatics and assorted criminals have terrorized the dismal towns of the Sahara desert. In October 2011, when the Qadaffi regime next door in Libya collapsed, a flood of weapons crossed into the bordering countries. Within months, radical Islamists calling themselves “Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb” (AQIM) muscled several competing groups out of the way and claimed control of northern Mali.
The Islamists imposed harsh Shari’a law, complete with amputations and beatings. Although very unpopular with the common people (who practice a mix of moderate Islam and traditional beliefs), the AQIM thugs encountered little resistance. Western countries watched these events with trepidation.
When it began to appear that all of Mali might fall to the rebels, France intervened and drove the AQIM forces from the northern cities. But the radicals are far from defeated. They remain in the region, hiding in plain sight, with the local population too fearful to help root them out. That would seem to argue for a longer French presence in Mali, but on Feb. 20, the French Defense Minister announced that French troops will be leaving that country “in a few weeks.” Maybe the French know something we don’t.