Since 2001, Susan Zakin has lived and worked in Madagascar, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Kenya, and recently completed a novel set in West Africa and suburban Virginia. Her previous Truthdig articles about Mali can be found here and here.

Few Americans outside the Pentagon have been watching Mali, where a midsummer election marked the end of a painful year of civil war and incendiary Islamic radicalism. What happened in Mali, one of West Africa’s most vibrant nations, is a primer on containing radical Islam. But it wasn’t the U.S. that got it right. It was Africa’s old colonial nemesis, France.

In foreign policy circles, it has become a truism that failed states are breeding grounds for terrorist recruitment. Yet when it comes to intervention abroad, the U.S. has veered between extremes of caution and blind optimism. In Mali, a country well on the way to becoming a failed state, the U.S. hung back while France intervened swiftly and efficiently. On Aug. 11, seven months after French troops landed on the ground, Mali peacefully elected a new president, former Prime Minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. Keita faces daunting challenges, but democracy in Mali had been restored, at least for the moment.

It almost didn’t happen. But the lessons of Mali could help us contain terrorism in the future — and they just might offer insight into the real risks of defunding government.

The official breakdown of Mali’s civil society began in early 2012, when Tuareg fighters trained by Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi returned to Mali bearing gifts: AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and, according to some reports, SA-7 surface-to-air missiles. The Tuareg militants, fighting under the banner of the MNLA, the Mouvement National de Libération de L’Azawad, rapidly gained control of Mali’s north. The Tuareg, whose survival skills in the desert are legendary, claimed a right to national sovereignty, or at the very least, full participation in Malian society. But it is worth noting that the militants were seasoned fighters who had spent the majority of their adult lives not in Mali, but in Libya.

To complicate the situation, armed Islamic radicals who had been plying the Sahara for years, smuggling drugs and arms across the borders of Mali, Algeria and Mauritania, made a temporary alliance with the Tuareg separatists. That alliance quickly disintegrated, and the region fell into violence and chaos, with the jihadi groups, AQIM (al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb), Ansar Dine and MUJAO (the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa) instituting brutal Shariah law. The MUJAO were notable for implementing a strategy now seen across the African continent, rebranding radical jihad as a “black” or “sub-Saharan” movement.

While public attention focused on the radicals’ desecration of ancient treasures in Timbuktu, the MUJAO was creating a new definition of Islam, reportedly under the strategic guidance of AQIM. The strategy of promoting armed jihad as homegrown African Islam was so elegant, it seemed inevitable — and it was frightening.

On March 21, 2012, a Malian army captain staged a coup in the capital city of Bamako, citing frustration with the government’s inability to control the rebels. Corruption and crippling foreign debt had contributed not only to a demoralized military but to a decline in basic social services coupled with a deepening income inequality. Although many people in Mali remained committed to civil society, Brig. Benjamin Barry, senior fellow at the London-based think tank the International Institute for Strategic Studies, was already calling the West African nation, “a classic example of a failed state, a clear security challenge.”

France and the West African nations in ECOWAS (The Economic Community of West African States) pressed for rapid military intervention. Reportedly, so did the Pentagon. But the administration balked. Critics on the left expressed concerns about French influence in the Sahara, which contains reserves of gold and uranium. Others were concerned about the possibility of another Iraq or Afghanistan, fearing an engagement that would drain U.S. resources and provoke a backlash.

As the conflict intensified in 2012, Human Rights Watch and other organizations documented human rights violations by every faction. The Malian army executed 16 Muslim preachers from a fundamentalist, but nonviolent, sect in central Mali, while amputations and beatings were becoming commonplace among jihadis. The MUJAO was using its contacts in remote Muslim villages to recruit child soldiers. The Tuareg fighters of the MNLA were implicated in abductions and rape. A respected local rights group in Mali documented 51 cases of sexual violence, including gang rape, perpetrated against girls as young as 12.

Observers warned that MUJAO radicals were extending their recruitment efforts into southern Mali, where neither the Islamists nor the Tuareg separatists had previously reached.

Without U.S. support, the debate over intervention was stalemated until the election of French President Francois Hollande. In early 2013, when armed Islamic groups crossed the line into central Mali, attacking the city of Konna, several kilometers from a strategic airbase, they gave the Hollande government justification for airstrikes. France followed up with the deployment of nearly 4,000 troops, joined by 2,000 soldiers from African Union countries.Some veteran observers gave credence to rumors that the Hollande administration had urged the Algerian secret service, which has ties to jihadis but changes alliances situationally, to encourage the Islamists to attack, giving France a pretext for action. Whatever its genesis, the intervention was a rapid and decisive win for Hollande, a Socialist who had served with distinction in the French Army.

By that time, both the British and the U.S. supported intervention. But the awkward run-up reinforced foreign policy stereotypes of both the U.S. and France, said Corinne Dufka, a former journalist who covered West Africa and now works for Human Rights Watch. “The Americans were seen as ideological, while the French were viewed as having a lucid understanding of the situation,” Dufka said.

The situation in Mali was clearly different from other military adventures offered to the French. Apart from the fact that French interests, notably uranium mines in neighboring Niger, were more directly threatened, Mali was winnable. Armed jihadists had not become entrenched, and the opposition was sufficiently weak and disorganized so that a well-trained, disciplined military force could succeed in a matter of weeks.

Perhaps most importantly, while Mali’s central government might have been corrupt, the country allows political dissent, has a relatively free press, and enjoys a sense of nationhood, along with that intangible quality one human rights activist called “joie de vivre.” Repressive fundamentalist Islam ran counter to the mystical forms of religion traditional in many parts of the country, and the response of many Malians to the incursions of armed jihadists was similar to the one expressed by a Mailian computer programmer in the U.S.: “These people will stop at nothing,” he said. “So they have to be stopped. No matter what it takes.”

But fighting terrorism in the Sahara, which analysts call “an ungoverned space,” is no simple matter. The Sahara desert, which stretches over 3.5 million square miles and comprises 10 percent of Earth’s land mass,is one the world’s great smuggling routes. In recent years, the nature of smuggling has changed, as Eliza Griswold noted in the British newspaper The Guardian: “Since water and grasslands are being replaced by sand dunes, nomads of the Sahel are being forced into different means of survival such as smuggling cocaine and cigarettes to Europe along ancient salt routes, or joining up with one militant outfit or another.”

Alliances shift like the desert sands and warlords play the roles of both jihadis and smugglers. The dual nature of their enterprise is embodied by the nicknames of Algerian jihadi leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who is called One-Eye, because he lost an eye fighting in Afghanistan in the 1990s, and “Mr. Marlboro.”

Understandably cautious about intervention after Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. may have called it wrong on Mali, but the foreign policy establishment is growing more sophisticated about West African politics, Dufka said. The Sahara has been on the U.S. anti-terrorism agenda since 2007, when the Pentagon established the Trans-Sahara Initiative as part of the newly created United States Africa Command.

The Sahara will only continue to grow in importance as more advanced weaponry is smuggled through the region. The Associated Press recently reported that Islamic fighters are believed to have SA-7 surface-to-air missiles looted from Gadhafi’s arsenal, a weapon Gen. Colin Powell once called the most serious threat to aviation.

“What if missile war replaces terrorist war worldwide?” wrote Michael Totten, a columnist for the journal World Affairs. “If Al Qaeda looted hundreds or even thousands of surface-to-air missiles, and it only takes one to blow a commercial jet out of the sky, the implications are staggering.”

The Sahara may remain a wild blank spot on the map, in character if not in actuality, but the solutions to Mali’s long-term problems are mundane: curbing corruption and strengthening the government’s ability to provide basic services in the undeveloped north. When the Tuareg insurgency began 18 months ago, the Malian government had been so weakened by corruption and crippling foreign debt to Western development banks that it was unable to respond effectively. In May, donor countries pledged $4.1 billion to rebuild the country, but the challenge will be to ensure that the funds are spent on roads, energy and business development, rather than lining the pockets of what many Africans call “the permanent government” of corrupt bureaucrats.

“I think Mali is yet another example of what I characterize as the culture of low expectations,” Dufka said. “There had been very clear signs of stress in Mali’s democracy, evidenced by corruption scandals, rebellions by Tuareg nomads, lack of substantial progress in literacy, maternal mortality, child marriage. But as long as there are elections that aren’t extremely violent, as long as there is not overt armed conflict, then it stays out of the category of problem country.”With armed jihadi groups leaving Mali only to regroup in other parts of Africa, including Somalia, it’s clear that military force merely buys time. Within the borders of Mali, the unresolved problems of the Tuareg pose a threat to the country’s newly re-established order. Tuareg complaints that the central government has marginalized them are justified, but corruption and shifting alliances among the nomadic group’s leaders have also derailed development schemes. There is no time to be lost: Not long ago, certain Tuareg MNLA leaders reportedly met with their former rivals in AQIM, which is characterized as the group responsible for overarching strategy among armed jihadists.

Griswold warns that West Africa is likely to remain a challenge to Western security. Like Dufka, she considers state failure to be at the root of many of the region’s troubles, but she points out that the problems of governing will be exacerbated by climate change, particularly desertification. In many parts of Africa, Griswold noted, flash floods and drought are pushing nomads like the Tuareg into settled areas, and turning local fights for land and water into a globalized battle for religion.

“In Africa, there are now more people fleeing weather than fleeing war,” she wrote. “The west’s greatest mistake would be to do nothing but militarise this conflict and to shore up corrupt leaders just because they parrot the right kind of western-friendly speak, as we have done in the past. Far more important — and more daunting — is the need to address the underlying causes of this burgeoning conflict.”

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