In March of 2001, the Taliban used anti-aircraft guns, anti-tank missiles, artillery cannons, and dynamite to obliterate enormous ancient Buddha statues carved into the cliffsides at Bamiyan. The statues were monuments to heresy, the Taliban said, and therefore must be destroyed.
I’ll never forget how a friend of mine in Oregon reacted. “We have to invade,” he said.
I thought he was nuts. Invade a country in the ass-end of nowhere over cultural vandalism?
“If they’ll destroy harmless statues,” he said, “they’ll destroy anything and anyone. So they’re a threat to everything and everyone. Just wait. You’ll see.”
He’s not a foreign policy professional nor a military historian. He’s just a concerned American citizen who had a very bad feeling about Afghanistan’s tyrannical overlords.
Six months later, the worst attack against the United States in American history came out of Afghanistan. The longest war in American history followed.
Now Mali, a West African country that straddles the Sahara and the transitionary Sahel region, is shaping up to be the next Afghanistan. Earlier this year, shortly after a military coup toppled the feckless civilian government in Bamako, an Al Qaeda-affiliated organization called Ansar al-Dine seized power in Timbuktu and lopped off the northern part of the country.
The harshest form of Islamic law in the world is now being imposed at gunpoint. Ancient tombs and shrines are being bulldozed for the exact same reason the Buddha statues were destroyed in Afghanistan. And the place has turned into a rat’s nest of the who’s-who of terrorist organizations operating in North Africa.
This time around, we aren’t waiting for a devastating attack against an American city to do something about it, and not only because Al Qaeda is already a clearly identified enemy of the United States. Northern Mali may already be the return address for an attack against the United States. Some of the leaders of Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, which was presumably behind the terrorist attack in Benghazi that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, are believed to be based there.
The United Nations Security Council authorized ECOWAS, the Economic Union of West African States—a regional bloc to which Mali belongs—to hatch a plan to retake the area. “We must take action to root out the Al-Qaeda, drug traffickers, kidnappers and other criminal elements who are turning northern Mali into a home for terrorists,” says Nigeria’s president Goodluck Jonathan. But African soldiers will need some serious help. “We know that ECOWAS can't do it by itself, and they know it, too,” says Anouar Boukhars from the Carnegie Endowment. “There has to be logistical support and air support.”
The European Union is sending hundreds of military officers to train anti-Islamist militias while the United States is considering the use of Predator drones and Hellfire missiles.
Ansar al-Dine deserves everything coming its way. Mali was a political success story before the Islamists took hold of the north. The country had what appeared to be a stable democratic government despite being one of the poorest on earth. Now it’s Afghanistan. Or Somalia. At least parts of it are.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates Mali now has more than 200,000 internally displaced persons. Der Spiegel’s Mali correspondent Paul Hyacinthe Mben says the number may be above 400,000. He quotes a mechanic in the emptied city of Gao who says the economy has collapsed, that it’s down by 85 percent.
The Islamists are going on a Taliban-like rampage of destruction, destroying ancient Muslim religious tombs and shrines because they’re “idolatrous.” Bulgarian diplomat Irina Bokova minces no words. “This attack is led by a tiny armed minority, who violently imposes its interpretation of a faith on a distraught local community, spoiling centuries of tolerance and exchange,” she says. “The attack on Timbuktu's cultural heritage is an attack against this history and the values it carries—values of tolerance, exchange and living together… It is an attack against the physical evidence that peace and dialogue is possible.”
Music—all music—is banned. The Guardian reports a chilling recent story. Thugs armed with AK-47s drove up to the home of a local musician. He wasn’t there when they arrived, so they left a message with his sister. “If you speak to him, tell him that if he ever shows his face in this town again, we’ll cut off all the fingers he uses to play his guitar with.”
The paper also quotes Manny Ansar, the director of Timbuktu’s now-vanquished music festival in the desert. “People think that the problem is new. But the menace of al-Qaida started to have an effect on us in 2007. That's when al-Qaida people started to appear in the desert. They came to the nomad camps near Essakane [the beautiful dunes to the west of Timbuktu where the Festival in the Desert used to be held] and at first they were pleasant and said, 'Don't worry, we're Muslims like you.' Then they began to say, 'We have a common enemy, which is the west.' That's when I understood that things were going to get difficult.”
Medieval-era Islamic laws have been imposed. Thieves have their hands cut off. Islamist policemen are everywhere. The “government” even whipped a 15-year old girl for speaking to men on the street.
Most of Africa is like Las Vegas at least in one way. What happens there tends to stay there. Hardly any African wars affect anybody off-continent. But Mali isn’t the Congo or Sierra Leone. It matters for the same reason Afghanistan mattered in early 2001 even though most of us couldn't see it yet.
We might get lucky and have just a small proxy war, with moderate Tuaregs doing most of the fighting against Ansar al-Dine. But no one can say for sure where this thing is heading. All we know now is that it’s almost certainly the next war the U.S. will be involved in.