Ross Douthat describes the consequences of the Libyan war in Mali fairly well, but he understates the war’s effects:
But northeastern Mali is part of the same Saharan region that encompasses southern Libya, which means weapons and fighters from the Libyan war have moved easily across Algeria into Mali since Colonel Qaddafi’s fall, transforming a long-simmering insurgency into a multifront civil war.
Mali’s insurgents are mostly Tuaregs, a Berber people whose homeland cuts across several national borders. This spring, their uprising won them effective control of the northern half of Mali, which they renamed Azawad. The central government’s weak response, meanwhile, led to a coup in Mali’s capital, Bamako, which replaced the civilian president with a junta that promised to take the fight to the rebels more effectively.
The president wasn’t just a civilian. He was also democratically elected, and Mali was considered to be one of the more promising examples of successful democratic government in west Africa. That has been destroyed, and it is unlikely that this would have happened had the rebellion not benefited from the influx of weapons and fighters in Libya. The weapons and fighters from Libya didn’t move easily into Mali just because these places are in the same region, but because the fighters’ patron was deposed and the regime’s arsenals were looted in the aftermath of regime change. Regime change in Libya left them without a patron, which freed them to lend direct aid to the rebellion in Mali. Military interventions always destabilize the regions where they take place.
The reason I say that he understates the effects of the war is that Ross doesn’t mention the refugees displaced by the fighting. These number in the hundreds of thousands in a region already suffering from food shortages because of drought conditions. This is a humanitarian disaster every bit as great as the one in Libya in the spring of 2011, and it could prove to be even greater. The Post reports today on Mali’s refugees:
Every day, several thousand people flee northern Mali to makeshift refugee camps that have sprung up in remote regions of Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Guinea, according to the United Nations. The fortunate can afford to pay for transport. The unfortunate walk across a desolate tableau, seeking refuge in some of the hottest, least developed nations in the world, already under pressure from a serious food and humanitarian crisis.
It is an exodus unlike any other experienced in West Africa — driven not just by war or famine, but by Ansar Dine, a puritanical, al-Qaeda-linked movement whose Arabic name means “defenders of faith.”
In addition to the refugees driven out of Mali, there are over a hundred thousand more displaced people inside Mali. When discussing the consequences of the Libyan war, it is important not to overlook them.