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A better way to keep Islamists at bay in Mali

France says it will withdraw from Mali once an African peacekeeping force is in place. To keep Islamists at bay, the US is considering increasing its military presence in the region. A better approach is to focus on fixing the governance issues that fuel radicalism to begin with.

A convoy of Malian troops makes a stop near Hambori in northern Mali, on the road to Gao, Feb. 4. Op-ed contributor Ambassador John Campbell writes: 'As Mali has shown, there is criminality and jihadism in the Sahel, but it has little to do with Osama bin Laden and much to do with the pervasive pattern of bad and abusive governance, too much of which America supports.'

Jerome Delay/AP

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As the French prepare to withdraw from Mali – at least for the time being – and turn over operations to a multinational African force, the Obama administration should not increase its military presence in the region by establishing a new military presence in Niger, possibly with drones. Instead, it should pressure the government in Mali’s capital, Bamako, to get its own house in order, to reach a political settlement with the Tuareg separatists in the north and thereby separate them from more radical elements which, if not destroyed, can be isolated in the trackless Sahara.

America’s security-centric approach should be replaced by a greater US focus on improving governance and countering the corruption that fuels popular radicalism in the first place, rather than relying on security to confront shadowy international networks that appear to be founded more on crime than jihad.

The French and Malian forces have driven the Islamists out of the cities of Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal. But, rather than resisting the Franco-Malian onslaught, the Islamists are melting away into the mountains and deserts of the north where they may regroup and bide their time. Absent a political approach to the region’s longstanding grievances against Bamako, they may move south once again when the opportunity presents itself. Should the French withdraw too quickly, that could be soon.


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