peter tinti

independent journalist

Category: us foreign policy

Long History, Uncertain Results for U.S. Counterterror Efforts in Mali, Sahel

World Politics Review

BAMAKO, Mali — Al-Qaida-linked Islamist groups took control of northern Mali earlier this year, prompting concerns that the vast desert expanse could become a jihadist safe haven. Since then, U.S. policymakers have openly entertained the possibility of kinetic operations, such as drone strikes in northern Mali, and pundits are asking if the landlocked West African nation now constitutes a new front in the war on terror.

Largely overlooked in this discussion, however, is the fact that the United States has been heavily engaged in counterterrorism activities in this part of Africa for more than a decade — an engagement that has long been the subject of external criticism and internal debate.

At the center of the debate is the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP), the principal framework for U.S. engagement in Mali since 2005. TSCTP is an interagency, State Department-led successor to the Office of Counterterrorism’s 2002 to 2004 Pan-Sahel Initiative. It is supported by the Department of Defense through Operation Enduring Freedom — Trans Sahara, officially described as “the U.S. government’s regional war on terrorism operation.”

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What has the US already tried in Mali?

CS Monitor

DAKAR, SENEGAL: When Mali received mentions in the final US presidential debate on foreign policy, some pundits began to ask if the landlocked West African nation would become a new focus of American anti-terror efforts. In actuality, the US has already been heavily engaged in counterterrorism activities in this part of Africa for the past decade, and the nature of this engagement has long been a subject of internal debate.

Since 2002, the US government has plowed at least $700 million in counterterrorism funding into Africa’s Sahel, a large swathe of semi-arid territory on the southern edge of the Sahara desert. Mali was a key recipient, taking in approximately $60 million since 2002 from the US. Though exact dollar amounts are hard to pinpoint due to the sensitive nature of some activities, many analysts believe that both figures are probably much higher.

The money was supposed to boost the capacity of governments to respond to the challenges posed by terrorism and organized crime across the Sahel. In Mali, that effort received a setback in March when Mali’s US-backed military turned its guns away from the Islamic militants in the country’s north and toppled the US-allied government in Bamako. Since the coup d’etat, US aid has been suspended due to legal restrictions barring US foreign assistance to the government of any country in which the military has overthrown a democratically elected government.

As the US mulls its position on military intervention in Mali and looks to continue shoring up other governments in the Sahel, the debate over how best to use aid in the region has grown sharper.

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Intervening in Northern Mali: Don’t Forget the Ethnic Dimension

Think Africa Press

While ethnicity is not a key driver of the current conflict in northern Mali, there is a real danger violence could become organised along ethnic lines.

Bamako, Mali: Northern Mali has seen conflict before, but the ascendancy of Islamist militants and the salience of organised crime – particularly the drug trade – suggest that this iteration is qualitatively different from its predecessors. Accordingly, the current diplomatic discourse emphasises a regionally-coordinated approach to defeating Al-Qaeda-linked militants and restoring the territorial integrity of Mali.

Even the best-planned, adroitly executed military campaign, however, is likely to yield adverse humanitarian consequences in the short term, providing ample opportunity for local actors motivated by a mix of ideological affiliations, economic interests, pre-existing grievances, ethnic identities, tribal networks and even personal animosities to pursue their own agendas.

Right now, the presence of ethnic and local militias might seem like a peripheral concern, but the international community may soon find that failing to marginalise or demobilise these groups could make it difficult to translate tactical military gains against Islamist militants into more strategic goals, such as regional stability. One of the key challenges for the international community therefore will be to ensure that a protracted, internecine conflict does not emerge from the fog of war. While ethnicity is not a key driver of the current conflict in Mali, there is a real danger that violence could become organised along ethnic lines.

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Huffpost Live: Mali in Chaos

This morning, I had the good fortune of participating in a panel discussion on HuffPost Live titled, “Mali in Chaos.”  HuffPost Live is a “live-streaming network that uses the HuffPost universe — the stories, editors, reporters, bloggers, and community — as its real-time script.” It launched on August 13, 2012.

I was hesitant to participate initially due to fears that it might be a debate format. I don’t have much interest in cable TV polemics. My one previous foray into TV was a thoroughly frustrating experience. This segment, however, was a conversation about Mali, its geopolitical relevance, US engagement (past and present) and the nature of the current crisis. It was an absolute delight and a pleasure to be among panelists such as Derek Henry Flood, Julie Owono and Scott Lacy, who each brought a unique perspective to the discourse.

Click here to watch.