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. 

When Mali received mentions in the final US presidential debate on foreign policy, some pundits began to ask if the landlocked West African nation would become a new focus of American anti-terror efforts. In actuality, the US has already been heavily engaged in counterterrorism activities in this part of Africa for the past decade, and the nature of this engagement has long been a subject of internal debate.

Since 2002, the US government has plowed at least $700 million in counterterrorism funding into Africa's Sahel, a large swathe of semi-arid territory on the southern edge of the Sahara desert. Mali was a key recipient, taking in approximately $60 million since 2002 from the US. Though exact dollar amounts are hard to pinpoint due to the sensitive nature of some activities, many analysts believe that both figures are probably much higher.

The money was supposed to boost the capacity of governments to respond to the challenges posed by terrorism and organized crime across the Sahel. In Mali, that effort received a setback in March when Mali's US-backed military turned its guns away from the Islamic militants in the country’s north and toppled the US-allied government in Bamako. Since the coup d'etat, US aid has been suspended due to legal restrictions barring US foreign assistance to the government of any country in which the military has overthrown a democratically elected government. 

As the US mulls its position on military intervention in Mali and looks to continue shoring up other governments in the Sahel, the debate over how best to use aid in the region has grown sharper. 

For Todd Moss at the Center for Global Development (CGD), the performance of the Malian army and the collapse of the Malian state is a “pretty big indictment” of US counterterrorism efforts there. Moss, who served as Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of African Affairs at the State Department from 2007 to 2008, wrote on CGD’s “Rethinking US Foreign Assistance Blog,” that the crisis in Mali “suggests that something is very wrong about the U.S. approach to counterterrorism cooperation in the Sahel.”

At the center of the debate is the Trans Sahara Counter-Terrorism Partnership (TSCTP), a State Department-led inter-agency effort to combat terrorism in the Sahel. 

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.

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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