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Mali isn't just France's or Africa's problem. It's ours too.

January 15, 2013|By Paul Whitefield
  • A French soldier of the 2nd Marine Infantry Regiment distributes smoke grenades at Bamako airport in Mali in a photo released by the French army.
A French soldier of the 2nd Marine Infantry Regiment distributes smoke… (Arnaud Roine / Associated…)

Be honest: You can’t find Mali on a map, can you?

Now, you’ve probably heard of Timbuktu. I don’t know why. Maybe because the name is catchy, like Katmandu. (No, that isn’t in Mali; that’s in Nepal. You’re welcome.)

Also, Mali sounds too much like Bali, which you probably can’t find either, unless you’re into taking vacations to beautiful and exotic places. (It’s in Indonesia; and it is no relation to Bali Hai, which is a mythical place that was actually part of the island of Kauai in the musical “South Pacific.”)

But you might want to bone up on Mali because it’s about to become the latest killing ground in the global war on terrorism.

On Tuesday, the French government said it was going to boost the number of its soldiers fighting Islamist insurgents in the former French colony to 2,500. As The Times’ Kim Willsher reported from Paris:

The report suggests that France was prepared for a larger and longer campaign in its former colony than previously thought.

Until now, the French government has portrayed France's involvement as limited to halting the Islamists' push south and backing the Malian army's efforts to reconquer and hold the north, with the help of troops from neighboring West African nations. The role of French ground forces were mainly seen as protecting French citizens in Mali's capital, Bamako.

And of course, the French won’t be going it alone. The U.S. has announced plans to help ferry French troops as well as provide drones or other surveillance aircraft and help with aerial refueling of French fighter jets.

As The Times reported Monday:

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, speaking to reporters during a trip to Europe, said the U.S. was already providing the French with intelligence help, citing "a responsibility to go after Al Qaeda wherever they are." Defense officials said small numbers of U.S. troops might be sent to Mali and surrounding countries but that they would be limited to a support role.

It’s all like a deadly game of Whac-A-Mole, terrorism style. We may, or may not, be able to get out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014.  But apparently there won’t be any shortage of other places that will require the attention of the U.S. military.

The question is, do we need to be there? And not just Mali but Yemen, and Somalia, and Nigeria -- the places Al Qaeda forces appear intent on using as havens?

Well, we know what happened when we mostly ignored Al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan pre-9/11. That didn’t work out, and led to a costly war there and the ill-advised war in Iraq.

So, yes: Mali may be a French problem, and an African problem, but it’s our problem too.

Better break out your atlas.

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