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Tuesday, February 5, 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. Islamist extremist groups expanded their presence in the country’s vast, Saharan north following a March 2012 coup d’├ętat that overthrew Mali’s democratically elected government and led the military chain of command to collapse. The insurgents include Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, along with at least two loosely allied groups. In the capital, Bamako, located in the south, the interim government formed in the wake of the coup has suffered from internal divisions and military interference, and must contend with an economic recession and revenue shortages. Insecurity in northern Mali has displaced over 350,000 people and exacerbated regional food insecurity and poor humanitarian conditions.

On January 11, 2013, France launched military operations against insurgent targets in northern Mali, following a request from the Malian government for help in repelling insurgent advances toward the south. French operations mark a sudden and major shift in international responses to the situation in Mali. Previously, international efforts had focused on a French-backed proposal for a West African-led military intervention, negotiations with some armed groups in the north, and prospects for elections aimed at a more legitimate, effective government in Bamako. The planned regional intervention, termed the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA), was authorized by the U.N. Security Council in December 2012. However, AFISMA was widely seen as requiring many months to prepare. During the planning for AFISMA, serious questions have also been raised concerning Malian and regional troops’ military capacity and will, as well as the potential cost and humanitarian consequences of regional deployments.

The United States may provide logistical support to ongoing French operations, as France has requested. The Obama Administration may also provide support to regional troop contributors as France and regional leaders attempt to accelerate African deployments under AFISMA. Prior to the French intervention, U.S. policymakers had reportedly debated the potential for unilateral action against terrorist actors in Mali. The Obama Administration has also called for Mali to organize national elections, and has supported regional efforts to mediate a way out of Mali’s political standoff and contain violent extremism from spreading more widely in the region.

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 restrictions do not affect 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 previous U.S. efforts to do so. Looking forward, Congress may consider issues related to how, and to what extent, to support French and regional military deployments to Mali; whether unilateral U.S. action is required or wise; how to assess previous U.S. security engagement in Mali and the region; and future U.S. aid, including humanitarian assistance. 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: January 14, 2013
Number of Pages: 21
Order Number: R42664
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