Conflict in Mali shows US needs greater engagement in Africa
While I am pleased at reports of US cooperation with France to stop Islamist extremists Mali and run them out of Timbuktu, I remain concerned about the interrelated, widespread threat of terror in the region. America cannot afford to treat it as compartmentalized country-by-country issue.
Many Americans have heard of the city called Timbuktu. Many have probably even used the expression “from here to Timbuktu,” as a cliché to explain that something is very, very far away. Until recently, not many Americans would have answered quickly or even correctly when asked where the city is, or what country it is in. But front-page news events over the past weeks and months may have changed Americans’ awareness of the famous city of Timbuktu, and the northern African country of Mali.Skip to next paragraph
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And it’s an awareness they cannot afford to lose. Preventing attacks on our soil and against Americans all over the world demands that we pay attention to developments in Mali, Libya, Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria, Sudan and other key – sometimes volatile – countries in northern Africa. And there are many other nations and regions that could threaten our security.
While I am pleased at reports of US military and intelligence cooperation with France and other countries to aid the efforts to stop these extremists from their path of destruction in Mali, I remain as concerned as I was following a trip I made to northern African in 2005. Combating such a widespread, interrelated threat requires cooperation to proactively address and prevent terror. America cannot afford to address this national security priority as if it were a compartmentalized country-by-country threat.
In 2005, as a US senator from Wisconsin and ranking member of the African Affairs Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I visited Mali and wrote about my visit in this publication. At the time, I wrote that, “if we want a less threatening future, we Americans need to get in the game, increase our diplomatic presence, listen to the people on the ground, and combine widespread, quick-impact development projects with long-term investments in fighting corruption and promoting the rule of law.”
The Obama administration has certainly done a better job of reaching out to this region, and has a much better appreciation of the transnational nature of the terrorist threat, particularly in Africa. Regrettably, Washington is still struggling to free itself from the flawed policies that continue to undermine a more flexible and informed approach in our fight against that terrorist threat. The US should be even more engaged in Africa than we are now.
Given the months-long struggle against Al Qaeda-allied fighters in Mali and the tragic hostage situation in nearby Algeria, the need to “get in the game” is even truer today. We as Americans must become conversant with and respectful of the geography, the languages, the customs, and cultures of far-away places. We must not be taken by surprise again, as we were on 9/11.
The region of northern Africa has a rich past and has much to teach about the history of the world. Reports of militants in Timbuktu torching 12th century manuscripts and destroying ancient sites, such as the tomb of a saint from the year 955, were particularly disheartening for me, having had the opportunity to see similar documents in person during my earlier visit.