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What has the US already tried in Mali?

The US and the international community are debating how to intervene in war-torn Mali. But over the past decade, the US has already been heavily involved. 

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Sources from three separate agencies involved in TSCTP programming told The Christian Science Monitor that State Department officials regularly expressed concerns over the out-sized role of the US military within TSCTP. And while the program aims to take a holistic approach, TSCTP resembles an aggregation of traditional bilateral foreign assistance programs. For critics, these disparities are indicative of a broader failure to establish a comprehensive strategy.

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Officials push back that there is a strategy. Says one State Department official in Mali: “The assistance focused on building military, law enforcement, and civil society capacity, and programs to provide greater economic opportunities to populations potentially vulnerable to radicalization.”

Yet many of these activities – centered around community empowerment practices, small-scale infrastructure such as wells, educational programs, vocational training, and community radio programs – read like a list of tenuously linked development assistance projects, and serious questions remain as to whether empirical evidence suggests that these types programs are even effective in combating terrorism in the Sahel.

USAID officials told The Christian Science Monitor that counterterrorism programming in Mali is guided by the “widely recognized assumption” that “soft side inputs such as strengthening community capacity and addressing factors contributing to radicalization” are essential to effective counterterrorism.

These approaches are in fact “largely in sync with the level of scholarship on drivers of violent extremism that exists at this moment,” says Kate Almquist Knopf, who served as assistant administrator for Africa at USAID from 2007 to 2009 and is currently at the Center for Global Development in Washington.

However, Ms. Almquist Knopf, who describes herself as a “skeptic of the use of development programs to counter violent extremism,” also says that the scholarship is only one part of the equation. “Even when we know what the empirical evidence suggests – to whatever extent that it exists thus far – the challenge for managers and policymakers of these programs is translating that, practically speaking, into policies and programs that make sense.”

“If there is one significant overriding lesson thus far concerning countering violent extremism programming, it’s that context is of the utmost importance,” Almquist Knopf continues. “Just because we think we’ve got the analysis down at one moment in time doesn’t necessarily mean that analysis will be relevant six months from now or a year from now.”  

Meanwhile, TSCTP-funded cooperation with other Sahel countries has continued. A State Department official says the program now puts “increasing emphasis on Mali’s neighbors and particularly their ability to control borders to limit the free flow of people, arms, and other illicit goods in and out of northern Mali.”

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