The parallels are inescapable. When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, they stoned fornicators, demolished shrines they considered idolatrous, and gave sanctuary to foreign jihadists. The Islamic extremists in control of northern Mali are doing the same things.

The fear that rebel-held northern Mali has become the new Afghanistan figured in the last presidential debate, in which Mitt Romney said the country’s name four times. The deteriorating situation has provoked calls for swift military action, notably by officials in France, which once colonized Mali and has six citizens held hostage there. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson has said military action must come “at some point.”

Force may be necessary, but it must be the right kind, and it must be accompanied by policies and aid that can unwind the current crisis and redress Mali’s acute humanitarian problems.

The troubles began with the return from Libya to northern Mali of hundreds of members of Mali’s Tuareg community, who had served in Muammar Qaddafi’s pan-African force. The well-armed returnees sparked a new Tuareg-led rebellion by northerners, who have long complained that the central government neglected them economically and ignored or conspired with organized criminals and even the al-Qaeda affiliate active in Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Algeria, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb.

Capital Coup

Poorly equipped and humiliated by rebel victories, the military launched a coup in the capital. With authorities thus distracted, the rebels proclaimed the north liberated. The rebellion’s secular leaders were soon supplanted by the Islamist group Ansar Dine, which is supported by AQIM as well as an AQIM offshoot. The tumult has dislocated about 100,000 people within Mali and created another 200,000 refugees who have fled the country.

In formulating their response to this crisis, Western powers would be wise to keep in mind how Mali 2012 differs from Afghanistan 2001. To start with, the threat was far greater in Afghanistan, where a well-entrenched al-Qaeda had demonstrated its will and ability to commit mass murder globally. In Mali, the jihadist threat comes from an al-Qaeda affiliate that is as much a criminal as terrorist enterprise. The hallmark of its operations is kidnapping for ransom.

To combat AQIM while it’s small makes sense. The question is how to do so without provoking a backlash from the local population and breeding more extremism, or attracting the murderous attention of militants who have not yet targeted the West. In the case of Mali, Western powers have an option that was unavailable in Afghanistan: regional allies willing to accept the burden of intervention.

Both the U.S. and France prefer this approach; both say they want none of their own troops involved, although Western militaries would provide intelligence, training and materiel support. Yet French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has pushed for decisive action within weeks, a timeline that would effectively foreclose a regional solution.

Under an Oct. 12 United Nations Security Council resolution, the UN is working with the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States, which has evolved to take on security missions, to devise a proposal by the end of November to help Mali’s authorities recover control of northern Mali. Properly training and equipping a pan-African force will take months.

Dual Agendas

To stabilize Mali, the African mission requires a humanitarian and political agenda as well as a military one. Preparing that will also take time, yet there is a precedent. It could be modeled after the UN-supported African Union Mission in Somalia established in 2007. Amisom helps Somali forces fight the Islamist al-Shabaab militia and safeguards the delivery of humanitarian aid. It has also helped make parliamentary and presidential elections possible.

Mali’s junta has ostensibly turned power over to civilian rule but is widely thought to still pull the strings in Bamako, the capital. A unity government with no ties to the junta would help restore public trust until new elections can be held. The African mission could sponsor talks between that government and northern representatives aimed at ensuring the grievances of the north are finally, genuinely answered.

That outcome is essential to splitting the jihadists from local sources of support and would make them easier to neutralize militarily. While religious conservatism is on the rise in Mali, the puritanical Salafi philosophy has few followers, and its militant form fewer still.

Orchestrating the proper sequence for political and military action would be a challenge, certainly. Still, it’s better to integrate both into the response from the beginning, even if it tests the patience for action.

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Today’s highlights: the editors on agriculture policy and climate change; William D. Cohan on the SEC protecting Citigroup’s secrets; Albert R. Hunt on the policy implications of this presidential election; Simon Johnson on a conservative call to break up big banks; A. Gary Shilling series on the perils of low interest rates; Shikha Dalmia on how Republicans must root out hatred of immigrants.

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