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Regional Response to Mali Could Lead to Pitfalls

Regional Response to Mali Could Lead to Pitfalls
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Regional Response to Mali Could Lead to Pitfalls

With French troops driving back Islamist rebels in northern Mali, West African forces are expected to step in and help secure the country for new elections. This regional response has important implications for international efforts to fight terrorism.

French troops advancing against Islamist militants in Mali say their fight is not over until the country is reunited and al-Qaida-affiliated terrorists are driven from the north. French President Francois Hollande says it is a campaign that requires the active support of international allies.

"Our objective was to stop the terrorist offensive. That is done. It was to allow Malians to win back cities that had been occupied by terrorists. That is being done now. And then the objective is to allow an international force to take over to allow Mali to get back its territorial integrity, and we know that it will take some more time," said Hollande.

ECOWAS gears up

Leaders from the Economic Community of West African States - or ECOWAS - are moving to get that force going.

Africa specialist Jennifer Cooke at the Center for Strategic and International Studies said it is important to move quickly.

"This looks like it may be a longer-fought battle just pushing the militants back from their advance southward by the French. The ECOWAS troops will take some time to get up and deployed into northern Mali," said Cooke.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said there is strong international support for that deployment.

"These are some of the most remote places on the planet, very hard to get to, difficult to have much intelligence from. So there is going to be lot of work that has to go into our efforts," said Clinton.

Nigeria takes lead

Nigerian troops already are arriving in Mali. Nigeria's leadership of the West African force comes as the government in Abuja faces its own violence by Islamist militants from a group known as Boko Haram.

Charles Dokubo of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs said that confronting extremists in Mali is part of Nigeria's efforts to stop the expansion of a broader terrorist network.

"If this threat is not fully contained from there, then eventually they'll have to pay a bigger price for dealing with intervention in the country if it spreads to Nigeria and you have a mixture of what we have in Nigeria, and the one that's coming from outside," said Dokubo.

But with Nigerian troops criticized by human rights groups for attacking civilians while fighting against Boko Haram, analyst Cooke said al-Qaida in Mali has an opening to incite Nigerians against their own military.

"Deploying against al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and the associated groups up there opens them up to vulnerabilities at home, as it does for all the other ECOWAS troops getting involved," said Cooke.

U.S. officials expect that West African troops in Mali supporting the French offensive will operate much like the African force in Somalia, where Western allies provide intelligence, logistics, and training to regional soldiers fighting alongside the national army to restore order.