Armed Islamists gather in northern Mali, where militants have taken over… (Issouf Sanogo, AFP/Getty…)
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — If top diplomats are right, the world's next inevitable war is in Mali, a West African country where Al Qaeda-linked militants have seized control of vast swaths of the Sahara desert.
Western capitals are desperately trying to prevent Mali from becoming the next Somalia: an African country with a notoriously unstable government challenged by Islamic militants who may also pose a risk to the United States and its interests.
Lending urgency to those calling for action, U.S. officials cited in news reports have implicated Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, one of the groups controlling northern Mali, in last month's attack on the U.S. mission in Libya that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
But the idea being touted — a difficult, Western-backed African military intervention against the rebels in the north — risks turning Mali into, well, the next Somalia.
And the model being suggested for the military operation? It's from Somalia.
A mission by African Union forces to defeat Al Qaeda-linked Somali rebels hasn't yet delivered clear victory, but its success in driving the militia out of the main cities, opening the way for the first government and president in 21 years, has fired military imaginations.
Like Somalia, Mali has seen radical Islamist fighters take over most of the country and institute a strict brand of sharia, or Islamic law, amputating thieves' hands, repressing women and recruiting children to fight. And like Somalia, Mali is a country with myriad complex tribal rivalries, shifting allegiances and long-held grievances.
But Mali isn't Somalia.
"The analogy overestimates the capacity of the West African forces," said Gregory Mann, a Columbia University expert on Mali, referring to troops that have been promised for Mali military action by ECOWAS, the regional leadership body. "There are huge logistical problems which ECOWAS doesn't have the capacity to solve on its own."
The U.N. Security Council has given the United Nations and ECOWAS until Nov. 26 to come up with a military plan to retake northern Mali from the Islamic rebels. France, the main champion of swift military intervention, has ruled out boots on the ground, while Germany and the U.S. have ruled out sending forces, but all have spoken of intelligence support, military training and other assistance.
Analyst Anouar Boukhars of the Carnegie Endowment said ECOWAS would need the support of a powerful foreign air force to prevail against the Islamists.
"We know that ECOWAS can't do it by itself, and they know it too," he said. "There has to be logistical support and air support, most probably from France."
Military and government officials from the U.S. met counterparts in Paris last week to discuss security and intelligence in the northern Sahel region, including Mali, news agencies reported. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton travels this week to Algeria, the most formidable military power in the region, which has dropped its outright opposition to a foreign military operation, according to news reports.
Mali was a flawed democracy of 20 years' standing in West Africa's troubled "coup belt," but years of mismanagement, corruption and the central government's perceived long neglect of the ethnic Tuareg people of the north sowed the seeds for the latest Tuareg insurgency early this year and the country's spiral into uncertainty.
The stunning April seizure of some two-thirds of the country was spearheaded by a Tuareg rebel group known as the MNLA. In the confusion that followed a March coup, the Tuareg group took advantage of a weak and divided Mali army, sweeping in and taking control of the north hand-in-hand with Islamic fighters from the group Ansar Dine, who were later joined by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and another radical group.
The Tuareg group, quickly outflanked by Ansar Dine, was forced out and lately has stepped back from its demands for an independent homeland, in what Mann says is an effort to woo Western military support and project itself as a local proxy force opposed to extremism.
Some have accused the West of overstating the threat. But to European and U.S. military officials, the risk of underestimating Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and allowing an Al Qaeda affiliate with a rich source of funding from criminal enterprises to dominate so much territory in northern Africa, is an intolerable one.
But the questions are myriad. A power-sharing government that took control in April after the coup leaders stood down is weak and lacks legitimacy, and has done nothing to prepare for elections or a transition back to democratic rule. Mali's army is divided, poorly equipped and ill-prepared for a long, intractable war in the north, which would probably claim many casualties. And if West African forces were deployed in the punishing desert terrain, it's not certain how they would cope against the combat-hardened rebels.