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U.S. troops in Mali unlikely, experts say

Feb. 6, 2013 - 06:07PM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 6, 2013 - 06:07PM  |  
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Islamic radical groups in Mali do not pose enough of a threat to the U.S. to justify long-term American intervention, several African experts said Wednesday at the Brookings Institution.

Groups like Ansar Dine, which are trying to impose Sharia law throughout Mali, threaten regional stability because of their ties to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, they said.

Mali's interim president, Dioncounda Traore, took power after a coup last year led by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad. Since mid-January, French military intervention has led to the successful recapturing of Gao and Timbuktu. France is in the process of reclaiming Kidal, another major town in Northern Mali, and expects to start a troop withdrawal in a few weeks.

Events in the region that put American lives at risk — like the hostage situation at the In Amenas gas field in Algeria last month — have prompted the U.S. to keep Mali in its sights. But Daniel Byman, Brookings' research director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, said that Islamic radical groups in Mali are too divided to pose an imminent threat to the U.S.

Justin Vaisse, senior fellow and director of research at Brookings' Center on the United States and Europe, said it is unlikely that radical Islamism will overwhelm Mali in the coming months because it does not have deep enough roots in the country and an Islamist group has little chance to win in the upcoming presidential election in July.

Political transition is key for the country, according to Mwangi Kimenyi, director of the Brookings Institution's Africa Growth Initiative. The French withdrawal will leave the defense of Mali against Islamic radical groups in the hands of its developing military.

"The Malian army is not a fighting army," Vaisse said. However, its military is participating in training exercises led by U.S. special forces as part of Operation Enduring Freedom — Trans Sahara.

The U.S. and France will rely on Malian military forces and other countries in the region to assist in Mali's governmental transition.

"It's clear that regional actors are going to take the lead," said Todd Moss, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development. He suggested that the U.S. might devote more intelligence to Western Africa in the coming months, but sending a military presence is unlikely.

"The White House has not been super engaged in Africa," Moss said.

Byman added that U.S. intelligence-gathering in the area is weak.

"This is a region where the United States doesn't have good political answers," he said.

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