In one of the gloomier stories of a gloomy international news year, Mali turned from being hailed as one of West Africa’s democratic success stories to various metaphors of doom: it was labeled the next Somalia, a dysfunctional, failed state; the next Afghanistan, overrun by extremist militias and terrorist groups; and the next Libya, facing civil war and Western-backed military intervention. None of those labels quite fits Mali, of course, but its plight is nevertheless severe: After a military coup ousted the country’s democratically-elected government in March, an insurgency in Mali’s vast north rapidly gained ground. The rebels—a patchwork of ethnic Tuareg separatists, Islamist factions allied to al-Qaeda’s North African wing and old-fashioned warlords toting arms plundered from post-Gaddafi Libya—have de facto control over more than half the country, including the historic cities of Timbuktu and Gao. The hobbled government in Bamako is sluggishly preparing its offensive to reclaim the north, an operation that will be aided by a planned force of some 3,000 soldiers from neighboring West African states as well as logistical and intelligence support from the West, particularly from former colonial power France. But few expect real action until spring. Meanwhile, the chaos has fueled a growing humanitarian crisis, with hundreds of thousands displaced. Mali looks likely to remain in the (bad) news headlines for some time to come.
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