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Monday, August 27, 2012

Crisis In Mali

Alexis Arieff
Analyst in African Affairs

Kelly Johnson
Research Associate

The West African country of Mali is mired in overlapping crises. A military coup overthrew Mali’s democratically elected government in March 2012 and insurgent groups seized its vast and sparsely populated northern territory. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a regional criminal-terrorist network and U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, has expanded its presence in the north, along with two other radical Islamist organizations and the remnants of an ethnic Tuareg separatist group. The factors that drove these developments were complex; among them was the collapse of Muammar al Qadhafi’s regime in Libya, which sparked the return of Tuareg combatants to Mali and a reported surge in regional weapons flows.

Congress influences U.S. policy toward Mali through the authorization and appropriation of foreign aid and through its oversight activities. The prospect of an expanded safe-haven for AQIM and other extremists and criminal actors in Mali is a principal concern of U.S. policymakers, as it presents a serious threat to regional security and, potentially, to Western targets and interests in the region. The United States and other international actors are also concerned about the humanitarian implications of the turmoil in Mali: the conflict in the north has displaced over 420,000 people and placed additional pressures on an already dire regional food security emergency. To date, the interim government and military remain in disarray, while political rivalry and limited capacity have hindered efforts to forge an effective regional response.

The situation in Mali challenges U.S. goals of promoting stability, democracy, civilian control of the military, and effective counterterrorism in Africa, and raises questions regarding the strategic design and effectiveness of existing U.S. efforts to do so. Policymakers continue to debate whether, and how, the United States should respond to Mali’s crisis as it evolves. At present, U.S. policy seeks the return of a legitimate government in the south, and supports efforts led by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to mediate a way out of Mali’s political collapse and contain violent extremism from spreading more widely in the region. The United States may provide support for an eventual ECOWAS stabilization force, depending on its scope and with the consent of Mali’s interim government; to date, State Department officials have called on ECOWAS to better articulate its plans and needs for the mission. Direct U.S. assistance to the Malian security forces—in addition to several other types of foreign aid—has been suspended in line with congressionally mandated restrictions triggered by the coup. The aid suspensions do not include humanitarian assistance, including for health and food security, of which the United States is a leading provider in Mali and the region.

With regard to the current crises, Congress may consider issues related to U.S. and international aid to Mali, support for ECOWAS, and humanitarian assistance in response to evolving conditions in the Sahel. Congress may also consider the possible implications of the situation in Mali for the design, emphasis, and evaluation of U.S. counterterrorism and good governance efforts in Africa.

Date of Report: August 16, 2012
Number of Pages: 19
Order Number: R42664
Price: $29.95

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