So how worried should we be about Mali in it current state and the Algerian crisis?
More importantly, what does it mean about Islamist terrorists in the region?
This post is based on a recent article in The Economist on Jihad in Africa, as well as an article in the same issue on the Mali situation.
Let's start with the wider context of Africa, especially the region around Algeria and Mali(let's say Northern Africa. I'm not a geographer).
The ease of movement in Africa for extremists is a bit of a threat. Right now this is mostly because they are moving from country to country to escape the security forces, rather than trying to gather support or 'join up' with other Islamist forces. But it also means that through moving to new places they can find new allies. They can move easily because borders mean very little(considering they were drawn by colonialists, whom everyone just loves). States are often fragile, with little security or sufficiently armed policemen on the borders. In Libya some extremists are actually acting as "organs" of the state.
In other states, cases of Islamist terrorism are mostly localised, for example in the Sedan and Senegal. However they are on the rise, which is troubling to say the least.
What we don't want here is for jihadism to be 'infectious', with Islamist forces joining up to support each other and provide both financial support and a place to hide. A common purpose, especially religious, can be frighteningly good at uniting even the most fractious, violent groups.
There is also another potential problem recently created by the liberation of Libya from Gaddafi; terrorist groups who were previously suppressed or had moved elsewhere are now free to return and emerge, causing potential havoc if they have managed to steal any of the weapons stockpiled by Gaddafi.
However encounters with forces in Mali apparently haven't shown any sign of such a problem, which is good for the international situation as a whole. Machine guns and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles are not something you want to see in the hands of terrorists on any given day.
Also, regarding Mali, other African states have pledged over 5,000 troops to help the Mali and French forces in fighting the jihad forces. There are 1600 troops from other regions of Africa fighting in Mali and Niger. Another good thing is that the Islamist forces don't seem to have the support of much of the population, probably due to their violent actions in some of the cities. Most Malians are said to support the armies who are driving back the forces; this is a key difference from, say, Vietnam (to pick an obvious example). Instead of working to gain the local population's support, which Ho Chi Minh rightly saw as essential in fighting the Vietnam war, the jihad's acts of cruelty(such as opening fire on sixteen Muslim preachers who drove past a checkpoint) have driven most Malians to welcome the counter-insurgency.
What we (and by 'we' I mean mainly the French but also the rest of Europe and America) don't want is for the insurgents to regroup before the French succeed in getting to some of the northern towns and stationing soldiers there. For now the retreating rebels in the South, such as the ones who disappeared from Diabaly and are now , may easily be a future problem. However if the French do manage to gain a foothold in the North, some argue it will be a lot harder for the rebel fighters to hide in wait, largely because of the terrain.
The news so far seems to be getting better and better; French forces have captured Gao, as this article in the New York Times reports. Certainly this does not seem to be playing out as a repeat of Afghanistan, although the next month will be crucial in determining whether the French will be successful in breaking up terrorist control as far as possible and sending Islamist forces back into the ground.
What about long-term solutions? Although this may not play out as a repeat of Afghanistan, garrisons are probably needed in major cities if the counter-insurgency keeps its current momentum and succeeds in taking over from jihad forces. This is good both for protecting the local population and preventing more from supporting or hiding the terrorists, although the garrisons will need to be careful to avoid resentment from local populations. The French are reported as believing the garrisons may also be needed to maintain order as local town people seek revenge against the Islamist terrorists. This sounds a little far-fetched, as first of all it would be unlikely for terrorist groups to return to towns without any political or military aims, and second of all if they did return with anti-aircraft missiles and machine guns the local population would need to be protected more than they would need to be restrained. Although it is true that the local population probably wouldn't directly be wounded by the terrorists, any intervention or rebellion against jihad forces would lead to tragedy. Stationing garrisons is sensible; but what else? Hollande says his forces will stay in Mali "as long as necessary". This would be a little ominous if the French and Mali forces were not doing so well at the moment, but again the French need to avoid outstaying their welcome(or at least, if they plan on staying for a while, stay friendly). As for stopping the influence of terrorism in Mali and in the wider context, Africa, this is still an impossible problem. It's discussed in a short article, again from the Economist. Politics and religion are an incredibly dangerous mix; who knew?
Hopefully the French intervention may show that intervention can be successful and save many innocent lives. It may also promote foreign leaders to stop being so stand-offish (I'm looking at you, Obama) and start being a little more brave in foreign policy terms, especially when it comes to intervention in troublesome areas where organised, well-thought out help could save innocent lives.
(On a final note, we also might consider the fact that the Mali army has been accused of serious injustices during the fighting. Is this justified considering the lengths the extremists have gone to, in trying to gain more power in the South?)