While it is never expressly said, our foreign policy and media coverage convey it clearly enough: you only matter if you matter to us. The world is filled with pestilence and draught and war and famine and the United States and her citizens generally can’t be bothered unless it directly affects them. Perhaps it comes with being the world’s foremost economic and military power (for now), but we Americans generally don’t put much stock in giving a damn about anything that takes place outside of our borders. A recent study1 revealed that only 34% of recent US high school graduates could identify David Cameron as the Prime Minister of Great Britain, while a mere 28% of young adults could identify the region of the world where Afghanistan is located, statistics that are especially troubling seeing as how we are intimately allied with the former and in a the midst of a decade long war with the latter. But, if we’re being honest, the global ignorance of these recently minted adults isn’t entirely their fault. Only 12% of those surveyed agreed fully that their middle and high school education provided enough of a focus on global issues and whatever information they got from conventional media outlets at home was hardly a sufficient supplement as our cable news networks rarely venture into the realm of international reportage. Actually, as The Daily Show recently reported, CNN shut down its investigative documentary department to presumably better spend its budget on holographic touch-screen mapboards and additional stylists to manicure and color Wolf Blitzer’s beard. The vast expanse of modern American journalism has become a wasteland of bilious punditry, intent only on sensationalistic navel-gazing and devoid of interest in any international news not involving cataclysmic natural disasters, Islamic terrorists or Kate Middleton.
Given the public’s stated interest in such matters, and the news networks interest in interesting the public, it should not come as a great shock that there has been very little US media coverage given to the conflict unfolding in Mali over the past year. The first time I can remember the West African nation entering the national consciousness was after Mitt Romney brought up the takeover of the country’s northern half by “Al-Qaeda type individuals” as evidence of the spread of jihadist influence throughout the Middle East during the presidential debate on foreign policy. If memory serves, the majority of commentary regarding Romney’s illumination of Mali’s chaotic political atmosphere focused not on the policy implications of these recent developments, but why Mitt would bring it up it in the first place. Even the French paper Le Monde wondered aloud2 as to why the Republican Presidential Nominee was name dropping Mali, suggesting that the mention likely stemmed from his reading of the nation’s troubles in an AP article on surveillance drones in the area. Naturally, Mali disappeared from our national radar within a news cycle or two, only to reappear last month when the French government sent troops in to recapture the Northern part of the country at the behest of the Malian government and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
That mainstream US acknowledgement of Mali first appeared within the context of a discussion on the Middle East is telling. By no stretch of the geographic imagination would Mali, a nation whose bulk is located to the west of the Prime Meridian, be considered a Middle Eastern country. However, what Mali may lack it physical proximity to nations like Iraq and Afghanistan, it makes up in terms of its history of colonization, economic devastation and geopolitical unrest. Much like the ethic tensions in Iraq were caused by a bunch of crusty old european men with a map and a cartographer’s pen after World War I, the polyglot nature of Mali can be traced back to the bountiful harvest of colonialism, when the nation was established as “French Sudan” towards the end of the 19th century. Mali is diverse of mix of Sub-Saharan peoples, consisting predominantly of the Mande, Fula and Voltaic ethnic groups, with a small minority of nomadic groups from the north, the Tuaregs and Maurs. Naturally, the current conflict in Mali was started by a group of Tuaregs who formed the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) in an attempt to create an independent homeland within Mali for their people. In the course of securing independence for the Azawad (another name for Northern Mali), the MNLA had to ally themselves with the Islamist group Ansar Dine, and number of smaller groups who began to institute Sharia Law in the region. By the summer, the MNLA had lost control of the country, which fell under the rule of Ansar Dine and a splinter group of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Western Africa. French President Francois Hollande’s decision to send French troops into Northern Mali resulted in a deceptively quick conquest that drove the Islamist leaders into hiding within a month of their boots first hitting the ground, but won’t keep them there for long. As coalition forces found out in Iraq and Afghanistan, modern warfare is more of a marathon than a sprint. All of the firepower and military knowhow in the world won’t be able to overcome an enemy imbued with unyielding ferocity and a willingness to die. Eventually the occupying forces pack their bags and head home, as the French plan to do beginning in March, and the foreign-backed governments are left holding the jihadist Hydra as it sprouts its new heads.
At the present, Mali has the 13th lowest score on the Human Development Index (HDI)3 of any country in the world. Of the 9 nations that are located in the Sahel region of Northern Africa, a ribbon of land that is bordered by the Sahara Desert to the north and the Sudanian Savannas to the south, 4 score in the bottom 20 on the HDI. Expanding our view beyond the ungodly heat of the Sahel, the African continent gets worse, not better. A staggering 27 of the 28 least developed nations are located in Africa, with the war torn hills of Afghanistan representing the lone exception. As The Guardian’s Eliza Griswold points out4, areas such as the Sahel represent fertile ground for fundamentalist Islam and a variety of anti-Western militant organizations. Griswold argues that the problems in Mali and similar African nations are not rooted in Islam, but in the toxic combination of global warming and ineffective government. In Mali and elsewhere in the Sahel, rising temperatures and extreme draught are causing traditionally northern nomadic peoples to move south into already established lands, creating conflict where tenuous harmony had existed before. Combine that with the expanse of oil wealth pooling in the hands of a corrupt elite who have little interest in the welfare of their fellow citizens and you have the perfect climate in which to stir up reactionary sentiment and the Islamofascism of Sharia Law.
Ultimately, Mali is not a “French Problem,” just as Iraq was not an “American Problem.” In this age of globalization and international movements, ideology has become more of a unifying force than shared citizenship. Organizations like Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb may be modifying their tactics to try and operate within pre-existing social structures, but they are not beholden to nationalism. They do not fight particular countries and they are not hemmed in by borders. If AQIM & Ansar Dine cannot take root in Northern Mali, then they will simply move west to Mauritania or north to Algeria. The only prerequisites for the development of militant Islamists are a largely Muslim populace, an ineffective government and endemic poverty. The African continent has those three elements in spades and Islamic terrorist organizations will only become more prominent and widespread there if the international community fails to address the ills that have been brought to bear by centuries of economically crippling colonialism. Nations like Mali must develop or disintegrate, and nations like America must decide to provide aide now or military force later. I know which one I’d choose and I know which one is likely to happen and we both know they aren’t the same thing.