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Options For Intervention In Mali's Growing Crisis


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Many of us may not be able to point to Mali on a map, but this landlocked nation in West Africa has emerged as a crisis. Here's a quick synopsis: A government once hailed as a model of democracy collapses in a coup last March. Three northern provinces, an area the size of Texas, break away and declare themselves independent.

Radical Islamists take over and impose a harsh form of Sharia law. Refugees flee. Jihadists groups gather. Mali's neighbors propose to train and equip a small force to intervene, but the U.N. Security Council has yet to approve that plan, and Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., dismisses it as, quote, crap.

If you've ever spent time in Mali, call and tell us what we don't know about this country. Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the big dogs establish a new world order in the NCAA, but first the crisis in Mali. We begin with Sudarsan Raghavan, Africa bureau chief for the Washington Post. He's just returned to his base in Nairobi from a visit to Mali and joins us by phone. Nice to have you with us today.

SUDARSAN RAGHAVAN: Good to be here, Neal, thanks for having me.

CONAN: Sure. Is there one story, I wonder, if you heard on your visit to Mali that explains the depths of the problem there?

RAGHAVAN: Sure. I mean, what we're seeing now is that the Islamists in northern Mali are becoming - became more and more, increasingly brutal with the local population. One particular story that really struck me - it's quite shocking, actually - was a woman I interviewed who basically was dragged from her home, beaten up, taken to the police headquarters and thrown in jail and was facing a punishment of 100 lashes with an electrical cord.

And for what reason? All because she was giving water to a man who was not her relative. In northern Mali, I mean such mundane actions lead to severe punishment for the local population, and that's really contributing to this massive exodus from northern Mali to the South, as well as to neighboring countries.

CONAN: Who are these radical Islamists? Are they of that population? Are they from Mali, or are they from outside?

RAGHAVAN: Well, it's a mix. There are essentially three groups now who control northern Mali. You have a group called Ansaradin, who are mostly compromised of hard-line Islamists, many of them Malian, as well as moderates. You also have a group called MUJAO, basically, and they are essentially foreigners who are an offshoot of the al-Qaida affiliate in North and West Africa.

And then you have the al-Qaida in the Islamist Maghreb, which is the al-Qaida affiliate, and they've been around for a long time. They've essentially funded their activities through kidnapping Westerners, and which they've derived millions of dollars from, as well as, you know, they play a significant role in the drug trafficking trade from West Africa through the north to Europe.

CONAN: And what's this part of the world like?

RAGHAVAN: Well, this part of the world, it's a, you know, it's a very - geographically it's a very barren, vast sections of desert. As you mentioned earlier, it's the size of Texas. And this is what's really raising a lot of concerns because, you know, you are having these radical Islamists create a haven for jihadists to possibly target the West or to continue their criminal activities in an area that's geographically impenetrable for conventional armies.

And that's why there's - that's one of the questions that has arisen recently over the capability or the possibility of an African force, which is being recommended to take over - to try to liberate northern Mali. The geography of this region is going to be a significant concern to any sort of military intervention that could happen there.

CONAN: More on that later. But what about the Malian government that's - Bamako is the capital down in the South. We read that just this week the prime minister who took over in that coup in March was himself deposed.

RAGHAVAN: That's correct. There's, you know, significant political turmoil in Bamako. You have the military leaders who took over in the March coup. They were very unhappy with the prime minister. They just didn't feel that he was in line with their vision for the country, in particular their vision for retaking northern Mali.

The military has long wanted to take the lead in such an operation, and there's a matter of pride in this as well, because they were in fact the ones who lost the North. But the prime minister has been quite active in recent weeks in trying to generate international support for a military intervention, which just didn't sit well with the Malian military.

CONAN: And are there distinctions between the population in and around the capital, Bamako, and the populations in, well, those northern provinces, in and around places like Timbuktu?

RAGHAVAN: Well, the main difference is - I mean they do speak different languages. In the south they mostly speak the Bambara language, and whereas in the north it's a whole different sorts of languages like Songhay. But you know, what you're seeing now is that you're seeing the entire, you know, (unintelligible) population of the North now living around the Bamako area in a place like Segou, which is north of Bamako, and Mopti.

By some estimates, half the entire population of Timbuktu, this fabled, historic city, is now living in the South. So, you know, you're really seeing the fast exodus, the mass exodus of people leaving the North who are now living with, either with their relatives in the South or other refugees. It's a pretty grim situation.

CONAN: And you mentioned Timbuktu. It's the site of many world historical sites, Sufi shrines. They, however, in action reminiscent of the destruction of the Buddhas in Afghanistan by the Taliban, they're being destroyed.

RAGHAVAN: That's correct. It's - this is, you know, the Islamists, they are really shattering the soul of this very significant historical city, and it's not just the shrines that are being destroyed. You know, they - the Islamists even targeted musicians. Northern Mali, especially the area around Timbuktu, has had a rich tradition of music that has been, you know, basically been eviscerated now.

I spoke to, you know, many musicians who fled the North, particularly Timbuktu, who are now living in Bamako and really, you know, without jobs. Really it's a very desperate situation. And there's a great amount of anger. I mean people are just, they're being targeted simply for singing, which, you know, which, you know, which Mali was never like that before.

Mali is a - for centuries it's been a very moderate Islamic country, and you know, as one human rights activists told me, the Islamists have basically taken the joie de vivre out of the people there.

CONAN: Here's an email to that point from Katie(ph) in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina: I spent several weeks in Mali in 2007 studying music with Umu Sangarai(ph) and Neba Solo(ph). I apologize if I mispronounced their names. At that time, every Malian I met told me how it was the safest, nicest country on the continent, and from everything I could see, they were right.

What a shame that a country that had just attained stability in 1991 would be put through this turmoil again. If you've been to Mali, call and tell us what we don't know about this country. 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Robert's on the line with us from Nashville.

ROBERT: Hi, how are you?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

ROBERT: I went to Mali in January of 2011 to attend the very famous Festival in the Desert. I joined a travel group that traveled from Bamako to Timbuktu. We took a three-day boat ride up the Niger River. And the specific reason I went there was for the Festival in the Desert.

And at that time, people, the State Department of the United States and of European countries have warned people to not go to the Festival in the Desert because of the threat of al-Qaida kidnappings. Me being, you know, the adventurous type or reckless type, depending on your point of view, I went anyway.

And I had a great experience, but one reason I didn't feel too unsafe was because the Tuareg nomads were the ones who were sponsoring the festival. So it was in their best interest not to let any violence happen to Westerners because that was a cash cow for them each year.

But I'll tell you, it was very, very spooky sitting at midnight on a sand dune watching (unintelligible) on the stage. On either side of me were sitting Tuareg nomads totally covered in the indigo blue turbans. I could only see their faces. And they would look at me. And I'm thinking, OK, don't, don't be nervous, these guys aren't going to do you any harm.

But it's kind of spooky because they all wear the daggers and chains around their necks. I just think it's very, very sad that this is happening because it's such a - Mali's considered the birthplace of the American blues. And I just think it's very tragic this is happening because it's such a wonderful, beautiful, fabulous country.

CONAN: Robert, thanks very much for the story. We're glad you made it out.

ROBERT: All right, thank you.

CONAN: So long. And he's used an important word, Sudarsan Raghavan, Tuaregs. They are nomads who - well, they're not just in Mali but a lot of North African countries, and it was they who in the latest version of a rebellion tried to form an independent state in northern Mali.

RAGHAVAN: That's correct. You know, the Tuaregs in the North have for many - for years, decades, have been marginalized by the Southerners in the South. And, you know, the original rebellion was in fact started by Tuareg separatists, and they were, you know, helped by other Tuaregs who once fought for the late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

And they returned back to the North, you know, with carrying, you know, many of Gadhafi's weapons, and they used that to really, to push out the military, which, you know, which is also facing a power vacuum of its own down in the South, and essentially took it over.

But what happened after that was the Islamists, especially the al-Qaida militants, essentially - which they had piggybacked on this Tuareg rebellion, essentially pushed the Tuaregs out of power. And now what you're seeing is it's the Islamists who are now in control over all the major cities in the North, and the Tuaregs have once again been marginalized by the Islamists this time.

CONAN: After a short break, a look at what the international community plans for Mali. If you've spent time there, call, tell us: What don't we know about Mali? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. In Mali, soldiers forced the prime minister's resignation early Tuesday. Though the interim president since has named a new prime minister, it's not likely to inspire much confidence across Africa or the globe, where the country's instability is a pressing concern.

If you've been to Mali, we want to hear from you. What don't we know about this country? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Today we're catching up on the latest in Mali and plans to intervene there. And there are other news stories from 2012 you'd like us to revisit before this year is out - send us your suggestions. Email us, talk@npr.org. Put 2012 News in the subject line, and joins us this hour on Thursday for closing the circle on some stories from 2012.

Sudarsan Raghavan, Africa bureau chief for the Washington Post is our guest. Let's see if we can get another caller in, and this is Sadiki(ph), Sadiki calling us from Tampa.

SADIKI: Hey, Neal.

CONAN: Hey, go ahead, please.

SADIKI: I like your program, and I am very happy (unintelligible) attention of the international community, you know. So the problem with the country, why are the international community trying to help Mali (unintelligible) terrorists? Because if we don't face them now, we're going to have to face them in the future.

I mean, I hear about - I'm living in the United States. I hear a lot of talk about Syria, Libya, but I don't hear enough attention by the government, you know, to these problems.

CONAN: Where in Mali are you from?

SADIKI: I'm from Bamako.

CONAN: The capital?


CONAN: What do you think of the situation there? It's chaotic, to say the least.

SADIKI: It's chaotic because it's - you know, everybody is trying to get their own - it's corruptions. You know, everybody is worried about themselves instead of the country.

CONAN: And so everybody's out for their own, and nobody's looking out for the national interest.

SADIKI: Exactly.

CONAN: And what about this idea of a separate country in the North?

SADIKI: That's impossible because if you give these guys, you know, you divide a country, why divide a country? I mean, people are trying to get together, you know, in this period. I mean look at the European Union, look at the United States. Divided, you know, we don't make it.

CONAN: Look at Southern Sudan; that may be the only solution eventually.

SADIKI: Well, Sudan is not as stable, because I have friends from Sudan. In Sudan there is problems between the North and the South.

CONAN: There's a lot of instability there too, you're right about that. Thank you very much for the call, Sadiki.


CONAN: Joining us now is J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council's Michael S. Ansari Africa Center, and he's on the phone with us from New York. Nice to have you on the program today.

J. PETER PHAM: Thank you, Neal, thanks for having me.

CONAN: And a group of Mali's neighbors, ECOWAS, as the regional grouping is known, they have proposed a plan. What's the idea here?

PHAM: Well, the idea is they're concerned. They feel that if they don't contain the problems that my friend has spoken about in northern Mali, if those problems aren't contained, it's going to spread to their countries, and that's a very realistic fear.

The problem is that the plan that they've put forward is not particularly realistic. You talked earlier about how large of an area that the Islamists have seized control of, yet the neighboring African states are proposing an intervention force of about 3,300 troops drawn from sub-Saharan Africa, areas that are not sharing the same type of climate and geography.

They're unused to this warfare. They'll have to be trained for desert warfare. And even once they're trained and equipped, 3,300 troops are not going to take back an area the size of Texas. That's not even funny to think that that would be possible. so that's part of the issue, is that the international community needs to do something to contain this problem. It's a very real problem. It's even reached our shores.

But we don't have yet the political will to put together a force that's credible.

CONAN: And I was just going to say this plan has been proposed to the Security Council, which would have to approve it. It has yet to do so, and as we said earlier, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, described the plan as crap.

PHAM: Yes, and Ambassador Rice I think perhaps may have been less diplomatic, but it's - she's being certainly frank about it. It's showing a lack of seriousness on the part of the neighbors. They want to take the lead, but they're, you know, they're not willing to put the political capital, much less the troops, in the line that they need to in order to take that lead.

CONAN: Sudarsan Raghavan, let's go back to you in Nairobi after your recent trip to Bamako in Mali. The ECOWAS grouping, the largest and most powerful of Mali's neighbors, is Nigeria. They have, of course, a fight with some Islamists of their own.

RAGHAVAN: That's correct. I mean they're fighting (unintelligible) the Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, and they're - you know, and they're facing an uphill battle there as well. So it remains to be seen how much Nigeria, particularly, will be send troops into northern Mali when they have problems in their own backyard.

You know, there have been analogies made, you know, in which Somalia might serve as a model for any potential military intervention into northern Mali. But you have to remember that in Somalia, all of the neighbors that really were involved, have been involved in fighting back the al-Shabaab Islamists there, didn't really have too many threats in their own backyard.

I mean they were freed up to go tackle the issues in Somalia. It's not the same case in - with Mali's neighbors.

CONAN: And Ethiopia and Kenya, the two militaries that intervened for the most part in Somalia, are much better equipped and much better trained than their West African neighbors. And J. Peter Pham, that raises another question: What's the alternative?

PHAM: Well, several things need to be done. First, certainly we have to focus at this moment less on intervention in the north and more on realistically containing the threat there. That's small consolation for the people who, as Sudarsan has written about and spoken about, who are being ground under by the brutal rule in the North.

But being realistic, we have to worry first about containment, and then we'll talk about rollback. Secondly, we have to worry about re-establishing some sort of legitimate rule in Bamako. The military is still trying to pull strings behind the scenes. The government, governing elites, are largely discredited.

And as you said in the last segment, you talked about how the Tuaregs have been marginalized both politically in the past and now sidelined by the extremists. If you're going to ever retake the North, it's going to be with some help from people in the North who don't want the extremists. But they're not going to - if they're going to be able to negotiate a deal with the government in Bamako, it has to be a legitimate government.

Otherwise, you know, they've had three failed peace deals with legitimate governments. Why would anyone negotiate with a government that's illegitimate? And I think the third thing we need to look about, Sudarsan just spoke about Nigeria being the big neighbor. The other big neighbor in this equation is Algeria.

And though I don't analogies because analogies are imperfect, in a way Algeria plays a roll not unlike that of Pakistan in Afghanistan. On one hand they don't want extremists; they've had their own battles with them, but it suits their purposes to have the extremists off in northern Mali rather than in Algeria.

And so Algeria, which has a large border, if not the longest border, with Mali, has allowed, tacitly allowed extremists from other parts of the world to travel across their country to get there. They allow the supply lines, the fuel lines to run into northern Mali to keep the extremists able to carry out the attacks they are, and the repression.

So in a way, Algeria needs to be both part of the solution, but we have to recognize it's also part of the problem.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in on the conversation. Let's go to Alyssa(ph), Alyssa with us from Denver.

ALYSSA: Yup, I'm here.

CONAN: Go ahead, you're on the air.

ALYSSA: Hi, you were just asking a little bit about the - what's missing in this conversation or what do we need to know more about Mali. And I was in the Peace Corps in Mali. I was there, actually, when the coup happened. And we were evacuated from the country, taken out. So I ended up being there for 21 months and really definitely got to know the people that were living there and feel like that's what's really missing here is the people in Mali are so warm and welcoming.

It's the most peaceful way of Islam and Muslim culture that I've experienced. And I'm actually from Dearborn, Michigan, not saying that that's also not a peaceful place. But I just felt so warm and welcomed there. And for me, hearing things about Sharia law and hearing that they're saying no more music, no more dance, that's one of the biggest parts of Malian culture.

And it's just really, really upsetting for me, and I know all of the other people that I was there with, to hear that those things are not being allowed anymore.

CONAN: Were you living in a village when you were in Mali, Alyssa?

ALYSSA: Yeah, I was living in the (unintelligible) region of Mali. So my village was about 500 people. It was pretty little.

CONAN: Describe it. What was it like?

ALYSSA: Oh, man. It was - there was no electricity, no running water, and the people just live life there. They danced. They sang. They, you know, welcomed people into their homes for food, and it was nonstop talking there. There was always tea and wanting to know more about America and what my life was there and if I owned an airplane and, you know, all of the crazy things that they just don't know anything about America because they've never experienced - pretty much all of them had never experienced anything outside of their village.

CONAN: Thank you very much for that description and we're sorry that such terrible things are happening there.

ALYSSA: Yeah. It's a really upsetting thing for all of us over there, so.

CONAN: Appreciate it.


CONAN: J. Peter Pham, you spoke a moment ago about an analogy to Pakistan. Algeria, you said, was playing somewhat of an analogous role, and some people might say, well, Mali, it can be contained, a landlocked country far away. It can pose no threat to anybody else outside. Of course, that description could also apply to Afghanistan.

PHAM: Yes. And it's already attracting jihadists and other extremists and wannabes as well. Interestingly, just yesterday in the southern district of Alabama, the FBI arrested and the U.S. attorney brought indictments against two U.S. citizens - a fellow named Mohammad Abdul Rahman Abukhdair and another fellow named Randy Wilson, who goes by Rasheed Wilson, who were arrested as they were planning to travel. They were going to fly to Morocco, travel down to Mauritania and cross over into northern Mali to receive training and - from the extremists who are there now.

It's already become a magnet. These two were stopped, but we know of fighters coming from the Sarawi, from the western part of Sahara to Sudanese and others are coming there. So they're - it is an area that is active, and they're well-resourced. Arms flow freely through this area, thanks in part to the arsenals put aside by the late Moammar Gadhafi, but they've also made a lot of money. These extremists in the north have made millions over the last decade in ransom, so they have a nice war chest, as well as the money they made in illicit trade in everything from cocaine to cannabis resin.

CONAN: Sudarsan Raghavan, though, if - what we're hearing, if music and dance are such an integral part of Malian society, eventually, these people are not going to tolerate this kind of intimidation.

RAGHAVAN: Yes, you would think so. And in fact, you know, there have been reports in the north about people protesting some of the actions, the brutal actions by the Islamists. But for the moment, the Islamists are basically in command. They have absolute power. And from my conversations with people fleeing there, it seems that they are, you know, increasing their brutality. And, you know, as one - the former mayor of Gao, Sadou Diallo(ph), told me that, you know, the longer, you know, the international community waits, the longer there isn't a solution to the problems in the north, the more these Islamists are going to take advantage, the more they're going to terrorize the population and, you know, and really solidify their control over the north. And that's a major concern of many Malians right now.

CONAN: Sudarsan Raghavan is The Washington Post's Africa bureau chief, and also with us, J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council's Michael S. Ansari Africa Center. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go to Tuwa(ph). Tuwa with us from Cincinnati.

TUWA: Hi, Neal. I love your show.

CONAN: Thank you.

TUWA: I have a comment here.

CONAN: Go ahead.

TUWA: I would like to see the international community to help Mali, especially United States here, because, you know, when Obama government went after Gadhafi and it - that's when everything start. So Mali people, we don't know war. We don't know what is war. The last war I remember, that was like I was in elementary school, and that was with Burkina Faso, near our country, and it was not a fun thing to experience. So now, I have four kids in Cincinnati here.

I would like to see my kids see Mali one day and talk about my culture, everything. So I really want Mali to be back to normal. It's the most peaceful country in the western, you know, part of Africa. So if Obama government can do something that will be great. My mom is Tuareg. My dad is from - was born in Timbuktu. So I know what everybody is talking about, but, you know, we still want peace. That's all I have to say.

CONAN: Thank you very much for the call and we wish you and your family good luck.

TUWA: Thanks.

CONAN: And, J. Peter Pham, as you listen to her, the - to some degree, the situation in Mali is an unintended spillover from the intervention in Libya. What can the United States do?

PHAM: Well, what we can do is somewhat limited at the moment. Because of the overthrow of the constitutional government and the coup last year, by law, we cannot directly assist the Malian government until it gets the democratic transition back to constitutional order. Unfortunately, we had the setback this week with the forced resignation of the transitional prime minister, Cheick Modibo Diarra. So we have to get that back on track. So what the U.S. was planning to do was to assist Mali indirectly by assisting the building up of an African Union, African-led regional force.

But the problem with that that has been that, as we've discussed earlier, the - Mali's neighbors are not being very forthcoming. They - the plan they're proposing is not realistic, and so we're searching around for partners to work with, and that's the biggest problem. The Malian military itself needs to be retrained. It's a very small army. Mali never really had major enemies to require a large army, but that small army has also been corrupted by the coup as well.

So we're - it's a difficult task. And unfortunately, it's one that's going to require - I know everybody is desirous of a very quick solution, but realistically, I would not be surprised if it went well into late next year before we saw any real military action because it's going to take time to train and equip forces. In the meantime, we have to continue on the track of the diplomacy to reach out to those in the north who are disaffected by the extremists, as well as the political track to restore orderly democracy and constitutional rule to Bamako, something that the Malian people themselves should be very proud of having had in the past. And I'm sure many of them will want restored as soon as possible.

CONAN: I'd like to end with this email from Vicky(ph) in Gainesville. As an art historian who's conducted research in Mali since 1991, when I did my doctoral research in Bamako, more recently I've worked in Timbuktu's rich traditions of embroidery, it's a wonderful place. If this sort of political and religious turmoil can occur there, it can occur anywhere. My friends there are stunned by these recent events. This is in no way reflective of this country's long history of open globally-oriented culture.

It's unbelievable and should be a source of serious concern for people everywhere. I pray for a return to stability and real democracy. Sudarsan Raghavan and J. Peter Pham, thank you both very much for your time. We appreciate it. When we come back, it's Mike Pesca, and we're talking about the NCAA. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan, TALK OF THE NATION, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.