I fear that we are all going to have to learn a lot about Mali and the Sahel—and fast. It is rapidly becoming the latest front in the war on terror. Or, to be more precise, the West’s attempt to prevent the emergence of ungoverned spaces that can be exploited by Al Qaeda and its offshoots.

The New York Times today has a good primer on the challenge facing the French in Mali:

“The French are fighting to preserve the integrity of a country that is divided in half, of a state that is broken. They are fighting for the survival of an interim government with no democratic legitimacy that took power in the aftermath of a coup.”

It is a sign of how difficult this task is that the French are briefing out that success will require Mali to be reconfigured with far more autonomy for the Tuaregs in the north.

There’ll be those who argue that these kind of interventions merely move the problem elsewhere or have unintended consequences. They have a point: much of the trouble we’re seeing at the moment stems back to the fall of the Gaddafi regime in Libya. But, equally allowing a terrorist safe haven so close to Europe’s borders would be extremely dangerous.

How to navigate this situation is going to be one of the major strategic debates of the next few years; Cameron himself seems more and more committed to interventionism. One thing is for certain, though: there are no easy answers.

Tags: Al Qaeda, David Cameron, France, global war on terror, Mali, Sahel, Terrorism, War on terror