The nomination of General David Rodriguez, who designed the troop surge in Afghanistan, to head US counterterrorism efforts in Africa is a testament to how serious security challenges on the continent have become. If confirmed, Rodriguez will have his hands full overseeing US military activities in Somalia, Libya, and Egypt. But the greatest thorn in his side may be a country that few Americans have taken notice of: Mali, where Islamic militias allied with Al Qaeda have captured half of the country.
Once heralded as a democratic success story, Mali is in danger of becoming a failed state. The trouble started last year, when Libyan strongman Moammar Khadafy was toppled. Some of his mercenaries were restive members of Mali’s Tuareg ethnic minority who returned home with heavy weaponry. Now they control an area the size of France. One of the militias, Ansar Dine, reportedly funds its activities by running drugs and ransoming captives. Its leader, Iyad Ag Ghaly, wants to impose Taliban-style sharia law across all of Mali. The good news is that most people in Mali firmly reject that brand of Islam. The bad news is that Mali’s government, which briefly suffered from a military coup in March, is too weak to take the territory back.
West African leaders have asked the United Nations Security Council to authorize intervention by a regional African force. The council set a 45-day deadline for them come up with a plan. That’s a step in the right direction. But the West African states can’t do it alone. Europe should be prepared to bolster an African force with aid, logistics, and military intelligence. The United States should provide what help it can. If the problem plaguing Mali spreads, it will become even more dangerous and difficult to contain.