Time reports: Why should Americans care about Mali? Many probably asked themselves that question during the last presidential debate, when Mitt Romney twice mentioned the northwest African nation, a place most Americans might be hard-pressed to locate on a map. Yet seven months after Islamic militant groups seized control of northern Mali, the Western-designed military strategy to push them out could have real consequences for future antiterrorist operations, including for the U.S., according to some analysts. As the pieces steadily fall into place for a military assault on northern Mali, the intervention could serve as a model for future conflicts, at a time when Americans and Europeans have no appetite to fight another war. “We’re moving to a form of intervention which is much more typical of the post-Afghanistan era than anything we have seen before,” says François Heisbourg, a special advisor to the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. “If you are looking at future military interventions, it will not be like Iraq and Afghanistan.”
The objective is clear: to seize back control of northern Mali — an area the size of Texas — and crush the Islamic militants who have controlled it since last April. As a measure of how urgent the West believes the situation is, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton landed in Algiers on Monday to try to lock in President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s support for a military assault across his border, with an aide telling reporters on the plane headed to Algeria’s capital that the country was “a critical partner” in dealing with al-Qaeda in North Africa. And last Wednesday U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told reporters in Washington that the U.S. had to “ensure that al-Qaeda has no place to hide and that we have to continue to go after them.”
That will not be easy — especially since no Western troops will be deployed on the ground. The plan, crafted in a frenzy of diplomatic activity in Africa during the past two weeks, will instead rely on about 3,200 West African troops, together with 3,000 Malian troops trained by the E.U. Many of the West African troops are Nigerian, who have little experience in fighting across the remote, vast desert that characterizes northern Mali. In a French-led resolution at the U.N. on Oct. 12, African countries have until late November to craft a plan to get the Islamic groups out of northern Mali. Behind the scenes, U.S. and French Special Forces are increasingly involved in training and advising African militaries, according to Heisbourg, in advance of the attack, which could come early next year. And French officials have said they would likely deploy unarmed surveillance drones of the kind the U.S. already has at hand in the area.
But all that leaves out the region’s biggest military player: Algeria. Until now, Bouteflika has vowed to sit out the conflict, just as he did in last year’s war against Muammar Gaddafi in next-door Libya. The Algerian leader has good reason to fear getting involved: an all-out war by Algeria against al-Qaeda could spark conflict at home, in a country that is still recovering from a bitter, bloody civil war during the 1990s that claimed at least 150,000 lives. Algerian officials last week announced they were deploying more troops along their 1,200-mile border with Mali, but only in order to stop Islamic militants from escaping to Algeria once a military assault begins. [Continue reading…]