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Thursday, January 10, 2013

Crisis in Mali

Alexis Arieff
Analyst in African Affairs

For the past year, Mali has been mired in overlapping security, political, and humanitarian crises. After Mali’s democratically elected government was overthrown in a military coup in March 2012, the ensuing power vacuum allowed Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)—a regional criminal-terrorist network and U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization—to expand its presence in the country’s vast, Saharan north. There, it is joined by at least two other violent extremist organizations and the remnants of an ethnic Tuareg separatist group. An interim government formed in the wake of the coup has suffered from internal divisions and military interference, and faces a recession and revenue shortages. A regional food security crisis has been exacerbated by insecurity in northern Mali, which has displaced over 350,000 people. African leaders’ efforts to forge an effective response to Mali’s collapse have been hampered by the Malian military’s disarray, and by regional rivalries, limited political will, and capacity shortfalls.

The factors that drove these developments were complex. Among them was the collapse of Muammar al Qadhafi’s regime in Libya, which sparked a surge in regional weapons and combatant flows. But the political and security degradation in Mali also stems from internal problems and tensions related to governance, political leadership, intra-military divisions, and a failure to sustainably address ethno-regional divisions.

Policymakers continue to debate how the United States should respond. The prospect of an expanded safe-haven for AQIM and other extremist and criminal actors is a principal concern of U.S. policymakers. The United States may choose to provide logistical and financial support for a U.N.-authorized regional military intervention, depending on its scope and available U.S. and other resources. According to news reports, U.S. policymakers are also debating the potential for unilateral action against extremist actors. The Obama Administration has called for the formation of a legitimate national government in Bamako, emphasizing the importance of elections, and supports regional efforts to mediate a way out of Mali’s political collapse and contain violent extremism from spreading more widely in the region. The United States and other international actors are also concerned about the humanitarian implications of the turmoil in Mali.

Congress plays a role in shaping U.S. policy toward Mali through its authorization and appropriation of foreign aid and defense programs, and through its oversight activities. 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, which was led by a prior participant in a U.S. training program. The aid suspensions do not target humanitarian assistance, of which the United States is the leading bilateral donor in the region.

The situation in Mali challenges U.S. goals of promoting stability, democracy, civilian control of the military, and effectively countering terrorist threats in Africa. It also raises questions regarding the strategic design and effectiveness of existing U.S. efforts to do so. Looking forward, Congress may consider issues related to U.S. and international aid to Mali; how, and to what extent, to fund the proposed regional military intervention; whether or not unilateral U.S. action is required or wise; and the provision of humanitarian assistance in response to evolving conditions in the Sahel. Congress may also consider the possible implications of the situation in Mali for broader U.S. counterterrorism and good governance efforts in Africa and beyond.

Date of Report:
December 20, 2012
Number of Pages:
Order Number: R42
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