A northern Africa expert predicted al Qaeda could return to northern Mali "tomorrow" as he painted a dire picture of the beleaguered state during a Monday afternoon event.
Eamonn Gearon, an Arabist and explorer familiar with the Saharan region, spoke about the present situation and the prospects of Mali and other states in northern Africa at an event at the New America Foundation (NAF). Peter Bergen, director of the NAF National Security Studies Program, moderated the discussion.
A rebellion by a northern tribe, a military coup d’état, and the intervention of French troops in January to fight al Qaeda and other Islamic extremists that had taken over part of the country have hit the country over the past year and a half.
Gearon said there are still parts of the country that the French troops have not visited. The primary cities have been secured and al Qaeda in the Maghreb has been denied a stronghold, but the country is so vast and arid that parts of it "are still beyond the pale."
"Everybody wants to focus on the jihadis," Gearon said. However, the Islamists are not the primary problem the country is facing.
"They are a security threat. They are not an existential threat," he said.
"If it were only a problem of two or three terrorist troops, it would be much easier to solve the problem in the short term."
Gearon described Mali as riddled with political, economic, and social problems.
Mali is actually a democratic "lightweight" despite the country’s reputation for being a stable democracy in the region, Gearon said. He highlighted that voter turnout is below 40 percent throughout its democratic history, which began in 1992.
The country also has a stark Arab-African divide socially, and its infrastructure is "dire," Gearon said. Mali’s economy still relies on gold to a great extent, as it has for centuries.
Gearon expressed deep concern over the upcoming elections in Mali, which are scheduled for July.
"They will not be credible, and they will not be meaningful," he said. Mali has no meaningful election register, there are one million internally displaced refugees because of the crisis, and the elections are scheduled to take place in the middle of the rainy season, Gearon said.
Mali’s military only has about 4,500 members, and it is divided regionally such that the northern Malians do not trust the southern troops, Gearon said, adding that the French enlisted the help of the Chadian army because the Malian army is both incompetent and distrusted.
Western countries should invest in and train the Malian military, Gearon argued. He also said counterterrorism tactics should be used but only on a strategic basis.
"If we’re going to have counterterrorism policy in northern Mali, it has to be smart counterterrorism policy," he said, noting that the conflict there has become an insurgency.
Gearon repeatedly emphasized the complexity of Mali’s political and social landscape and argued that solutions must ultimately arise locally.
"Any solutions to the complex problems of Mali must be driven by Malians," he said. "It’s the only thing that will work."