History has often shown that military victories do not automatically translate into political success. This is true in the recent military victory of French and government of Mali forces in their fight against radical Islamist insurgents who tried to seize power in the North African nation. The small victory in Mali is just the beginning of what will likely be a very long struggle for control of the Sahel — the trans-Saharan badlands that stretch from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea.
We all know now that President George W. Bush was premature when he said in 2003 that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended” as he stood in front of a banner reading “Mission Accomplished.” It would be equally premature today to say that success in Mali signals the defeat of jihadist forces in the Sahel.
The Sahel divides the Sahara desert from the grasslands to the south. The unstable region stretches 3,400 miles west to east across parts of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Algeria, Niger, Chad, Sudan, South Sudan and Eritrea. Militias roam the region trafficking in drugs and arms, seizing hostages for ransom, and trading livestock.
The turmoil in the Sahel is shaping up to be a long-playing conflict that will end well only with the help of African regional organizations, Western nations, nongovernmental groups, and the United Nations providing a mix of military, diplomatic and economic assistance. Collective conflict management carried out by improvised, case-specific networks operating in informal cooperation is urgently needed.
While it draws scant attention from the Western media, the Sahel-North Africa region is actually more important than Afghanistan to the vital interests of Western powers. North Africa provides energy security for Europe with its vast oil and natural gas deposits, along with maritime security in the Mediterranean. Governments in the region have the potential to foster democratic change in post-authoritarian states. But the Sahel is unlikely to ever see large-scale troop deployments from NATO countries that are war-weary and financially tapped out from fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, an over-reliance on counterterrorism as the driver of policy risks distorting the true nature of the conflict in Mali and the broader Sahel, even if the fight against terrorism serves as an effective argument for rallying resources and support in Western capitals. Combating jihadists will require a light touch of coercive power, a finely tuned awareness of complex micro-politics, and a seasoned grasp of the interplay of regional currents.
A year ago we convened African, Middle Eastern and strategic experts for discussions in Washington to contemplate the causes, consequences and possible responses to the zone of instability in the Sahel. We looked at the unforeseen effects of the fall of Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya — from the movement of fighters and weapons across vast, unmarked borders, to the loss of a wealthy and sometimes helpful patron of African clients across large swaths of the Sahara.
In the unplanned flow of people, ideas, money and goods between the Mediterranean rim countries and their southern neighbors after the Libyan revolution we saw few net winners, lots of losers, and a compelling need to build new partnerships for security and peace-building.
For example, we concluded a year ago that France and Algeria needed to up their game to address the rising tensions in Mali, driven in part by demands by members of the Tuareg ethnic group and by the growing assertiveness of Al Qaeda in the Maghreb .
We did not see any easy solutions or early endpoints. Instead, we anticipated a multiyear requirement to build knowledge and relationships to prevent the post-Qaddafi turbulence from destabilizing an entire region or — if mishandled — from turning the region into a dangerous magnet for jihadist terrorists.
If the Malian government reaches out to rebuild the political fabric of the vast nation, it could isolate the jihadist element and reverse the negative dynamics in Mali itself. If not, a contagious and deadly interplay of people and violence could cross borders in many directions.
North African states need to help their southern neighbors, and vice versa, to prevent lawlessness from spreading north or southeast across the Sahel into Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Nigeria. Tunisia, Libya and Egypt — where governments were overthrown in the “Arab Spring” — also remain vulnerable to violence and instability.
Today Mali needs the sustained support of African and Western partners. The victory there must be carefully sustained using all the political, diplomatic and economic tools available. A counterterrorism strategy will not succeed in a political vacuum.
Chester A. Crocker is professor of strategic studies at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service and served as assistant secretary of state for African Affairs from 1981 to 1989. Ellen Laipson is president of the Stimson Center.