By Global Public Square
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In the final presidential debate – the one on foreign policy – it was interesting to note the countries that got a mention. Iran was cited 47 times, of course, Israel 34 times, and China 32 times. It was also telling there was only one mention each of Europe and Africa, and none at all of India.
But I was struck by the amount of play one small country got, one that usually doesn't register on Washington's foreign policy radar. Landlocked Mali, with a population of about 15 million, and a GDP 1 percent that of Mexico's.
Why Mali? Here's the story briefly.
Radical Islamist groups have taken control of as much as two-thirds of Mali's territory this year, including the historic city of Timbuktu. Among these groups is "al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb," said to have been involved in last month's attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Together, these radical outfits have tormented Mali. They've destroyed historic shrines, imposed a draconian version of Sharia law, and gone as far as stoning and beating people who come in their way.
Now, Mali was once considered one of the few stable democracies in Africa, and Mali's capital, Bamako, would normally have been able to counteract these insurgents. But the government tripped up this year. A coup took place in March. In the aftermath, soldiers deserted the army; there are reports many even sold their equipment for money. So Mali is now essentially defenseless. Last month, the interim president called on the U.N. Security Council to help. And so it seems increasingly likely there will be some kind of military intervention. Already, a regional group called ECOWAS – the Economic Community of West Africa States – is pooling together a small army.
France is leading the calls for action. It has submitted a proposal to the U.N. for Malian soldiers to be trained by the European Union. Those soldiers will then join a few thousand ECOWAS troops to retake northern Mali. Remember, Mali was a French colony until 1960 – and France continues to have trade interests in the region.
What about Washington's role? Haven't our leaders promised to go after al Qaeda wherever it takes us? Yes – but that doesn't always mean we need to have boots on the ground. Al Qaeda and its affiliated terror groups keep popping up in different parts of the world. When we suppress them in one region, they crop up elsewhere. It's a tremendous undertaking to keep following them. That's why it's heartening to see local and regional powers take up the fight. In Somalia, for example, Ethiopia and Kenya have been instrumental in battling the al Qaeda-linked Shabab group. Other countries, like Yemen, have welcomed surgical U.S. strikes – even drone strikes – without a presence of troops.
With or without the United States, there is a real prospect that the next war you will hear about – perhaps next year – will be fought not in Iran, but in the impoverished country of Mali. You heard it here first.