In the 16th and 17th centuries, Timbuktu was a great and prosperous city in the interior of Africa. It sat at the southern edge of the Sahara desert on the banks of the Niger River, and it was at the hub of a network of trade routes through which flowed gold, salt and slaves.
Leo Africanus, the renowned Moorish traveler and author of the Middle Ages, had this to say about Timbuktu. "The inhabitants of this area are very rich, so much so that the king has married both of his daughters to two rich merchants. The rich king has many articles of gold and keeps a magnificent and well-furnished court. When he travels anywhere he rides a camel that is lead by some of his noblemen. He travels likewise when he goes into war, and his warriors ride upon horses. Attending him he always has 3000 horsemen and a great number of foot soldiers armed with poisonous arrows. Here there are many doctors, judges, priests and other educated men that are well maintained at the king's cost. Many manuscripts and books can be bought here and are sold here for more money than any other merchandise. "
Fueled by the wealth of trans-Saharan trade, Timbuktu became a center of scholarship and learning. It was home to the prestigious Koranic Sankore University and other highly regarded academic institutions. It was said that at any one time 25,000 students attended these schools. Scholars, engineers and architects from all across the African continent traveled to Timbuktu to study.
On April 1st of this year, Timbuktu was overrun by Tuareg separatists fighting against the central government of the nation of Mali. While some of the fighters that took the city belonged to a secular militia, many others were members of Ansar e Dine, a radical Islamic group allied with Al-Qaeda.
As soon as Timbuktu fell, Ansar e Dine began to assert its control over the city. Members of the group hoisted the black flags of Al Qaeda and announced the imposition of sharia law. Women were ordered to veil themselves. Public association between men and women was forbidden. Bars and schools were closed. Liquor stocks were destroyed, as were any examples of traditional African art depicting the human form. French television showed members of Ansar e Dine crushing wooden sculptures and lecturing the local populace on correct, "Islamic" behavior.
Shortly thereafter, members of Ansar e Dine attacked and set fire to the centuries old tomb of a prominent Islamic saint, presumably because the moderate form of Islam for which this holy man stood was at odds with the austere, unforgiving Islam of today's extremists. Timbuktu, reportedly home to the tombs of 333 saints, is also home to nearly 100,000 ancient manuscripts, some dating to the 12th century. Islamic radicals have announced their plans to destroy these as well.
The entire northern half of Mali, an area roughly the size of Texas, is now outside the control of the Malian government in the capital city of Bamako. Fighters from other nations in northern and western Africa, including Tunisia, Libya, Nigeria and Morocco are reported to be flocking to the area saying they have come to wage holy war.
We have spent a decade wrestling with the problem of Afghanistan and how best to assure some measure of stability there. The prospect of it once again becoming a staging area for attacks on the United States consumes us. We continue to this day to pour men and money into the effort of pacifying and modernizing that nation and argue heatedly over how to prevent it from becoming a "failed state".
What we have not yet grasped, however, is the increasing speed with which other nations are poised to fail. All around us, in fact, the stitching is coming out of nation states in Africa and Asia. The lawless, ungoverned spaces on the map are multiplying, and in those spaces, extremism, particularly Islamic extremism, is growing.
Somalia has effectively ceased to exist as a nation. Take a look at its outlines on a map. They are a fiction. It has been years since there has been a central government in Mogadishu, which could impose any measure of real control over the remainder of the country. Somalia has disintegrated into a patchwork of fiefdoms controlled by disparate clans and tribes. Much of the central and southern part of the nation is under the control of an Al Qaeda affiliate, Al Shabaab.
The northern part of Nigeria is wracked by violence orchestrated by the Islamic terrorist group. Boko Haram, whose name means, "Western learning is sinful". Boko Haram's express intent is to impose Islamic rule over the entire nation of Nigeria, the eighth largest oil producer in the world. Estimates are that upwards of 14,000 people have died as the result of religiously inspired violence in Nigeria in the last ten years.
Yemen is a disaster area. It is wracked by at least two separate rebellions against the central government. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the most active Al Qaeda affiliate in the world, continues to use Yemeni soil as a launching pad for attacks on the West. Children are dying by the hundreds of thousands from malnutrition; the electrical grid and pipeline systems are subjected to regular sabotage and the nation, as a whole is just about to run completely out of water.
Former CIA operations officer, Charles Faddis, served for twenty years in the Near East, South Asia and Europe. In May 2008, he retired as head of the CIA's WMD terrorism unit. Charles now hosts The United States of Common Sense. | Photo: CIA |
Poised behind these nations is a long line of other nation states slowly but inexorably disintegrating: Sudan, Chad, Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, perhaps even Pakistan, home to the world's sixth largest nuclear arsenal.
Recent press reports have suggested that the Obama Administration has begun to modify its expectations regarding an endgame in Afghanistan and to accept that we may have to be satisfied with leaving behind a nation much less cohesive and modern than we had hoped. That's a step in direction of facing reality, but only a very minor one.
The truth is that as populations in the Third World grow and resources dwindle, we are going to be faced with an increasing number of failed states and confronted with an ever-multiplying number of hostile extremist groups. Our challenge, then, is to formulate policies, which will allow us to protect our vital interests without requiring a ruinously high level of expenditure in blood and treasure.
What that means is that we no longer have the luxury, if we ever did, of indulging the Neo-Con fantasy that we can remake the world in our image. We will have to be much more selective about what battles we decide to fight, and when we do engage we will need to find ways, which are much less costly and much more sustainable to do so.
There will, in short, be nations which fail and disintegrate into petty feudal kingdoms and which we are simply not going to be able to save. There are going to be other nations which begin to come apart which are going to so vital to our interests that we are going to be compelled to step in, We are, however, going to have to find ways, using special operations forces, advanced technology and intelligence personnel to do what needs to be done without committing huge numbers of conventional forces and undertaking open-ended nation-building exercises.
We have no choice. Northern Mali, called Azawad by the locals, may be the newest Afghanistan. It will most certainly not be the last.