In a rare show of unanimity, the UN security council (UNSC) has finally given the go-ahead for a multinational African-led force to retake northern Mali from Islamist militants who have established a harsh form of Sharia law and are creating a sanctuary for al-Qaida affiliated terrorist groups.
The UNSC resolution, sponsored by former colonial power France, calls for both political and military actions to reunite the country. West African nations say they've got 3,300 troops prepared to act, but such a mission is unlikely until late 2013 and will be far from straightforward.
Mali has been in turmoil since last March, when a coup by junior military officers led to a power vacuum that Tuareg rebels in the north took advantage of, and they joined with other armed Islamist groups to take over a huge chunk of the country. Once established, the Islamists turned on their Tuareg allies and pushed them out.
Amid all this chaos and violence, tens of thousands of refugees fled the north, and more have since fled the brutal rule of the extremist Muslim militias. Once normal social activities – smoking, drinking, men and women speaking together – are now punished with stoning, flogging and amputation of hands. Now, tens of thousands of refugees are in Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso, and the UN refugee authorities are struggling to feed, shelter and protect them all.
Western powers, as well as neighbouring countries, are concerned that northern Mali is becoming a magnet for jihadists from around north Africa and the Middle East, and fear the region may become a new Somalia for Islamic terrorism. And as Witney Schneidmen and Brandon Routman write in Foreign Policy magazine, waiting until late next year to send in troops may be a mistake:
By that time ... northern Mali is likely to be an al Qaida stronghold and a significantly larger force than ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States] is proposing would be needed to dislodge the jihadists. Together, AQIM [al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb] and Ansar Dine [Mali-based Islamic militia] can currently count on up to several thousand armed fighters. AQIM has generated millions of dollars from ransoms paid by kidnapped Europeans and illicit drug transactions, and will likely work to strengthen the military capabilities of the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, adding more pressure to the challenges being faced by the Nigerian government, Washington's key strategic partner in the region.
While the Security Council vote highlights growing international concern about the situation in Mali, this vote is by no means the panacea to this new African crisis. There are serious hurdles to overcome before a credible counterforce can be mounted against the Islamists in the north. And considering the vast size of the area to be reclaimed – and the likelihood that the rebels will avoid direct conflict, preferring guerrilla-style resistance – trying to figure out how to alleviate the suffering of the people of northern Mali will remain high on the world's list for 2013.
Read more: This Daily Briefing backgrounder gives a good picture of how one of Africa's most stable democracies has descended into chaos.
Sources: Euronews, France 24, Avaaz, Guardian, Independent, International Business Times, UNHCR, Globe and Mail, Foreign Policy, New York Times, BBC, Al Jazeera