One of the international developments that I have been following with great pain and disappointment is what has been going on in northern Mali since early 2012. For those who are not paying too much attention, here is a brief summary: Mali, a former French colony, is a West African nation that had often been cited as a democratic model in that region. Since last January, several Tuareg and Arab insurgent groups, many of them heavily armed, have been fighting a campaign against the Malian government for independence for northern Mali, an area known also as Azawad.
By April 2012, these various insurgent groups gained enormous success against government troops and gained control of more than half of the country. As the conflict continued, some of the insurgent groups, which are made up of radical extremists and linked to the terrorist group al Qaeda, seized power and declared a so-called sharia law, implementing their understanding of the Islamic state. The international community, led mainly by the French army, finally acted and, in partnership with the weak Malian army, has been conducting a military campaign against these insurgent groups. This military intervention has been successful so far, but many in the international community believe that the problem is far from being solved.
In recent decades, we have seen this tragedy multiple times in other parts of the world. This cancer of so-called religious extremism and violence has shown its ugly and disgusting face in the Taliban's Afghanistan, Somalia and more. This deadly disease, needless to say, is anything but Islamic, and finds its way to socially, economically, culturally and intellectually devastated parts of the world and waits for the right time to strike. When we finally feel we killed all the snakes and closed all the snake holes in any given area, we see the emergence of the same despicable, poisonous cobra rising up somewhere else on the world map.
I do not believe in absolute pacifism, and I am in favor of using force when it's necessary -- so long as it is done by ethical, moral armies to end violence and injustice. I also endorse and agree with the recent French military intervention in northern Mali and am hoping that it will successfully weed out these terrorists. However, I don't think humanity can win this battle and get cured of this ugly threat of extremism and violence only through military means. What we are fighting -- as destructive and as troubling as it may be to most of us -- is an idea, and we cannot wipe out ideas and ideologies with our physical power only.
What I see in our fight against terrorism and radical extremism is the same fatal defect that I see in our medical and health care world. We invest trillions of dollars, not to mention unbelievable amounts of time, energy and human investment, for the treatment of many diseases when we do not spend even a tiny percentage of that money and effort for the preventative measures. We wait until people get really sick and then provide the costly treatment when we could have spent much less had we committed to preventing the same sickness.
If the global community even reacts, it only does so once things get out of control, as we once again saw in Mali. Only after the virus of terrorism takes its roots and gains strength do you see the global powers scratching their heads and wondering what to do. I do not know what it will take for us to learn the mistakes and failures of our past struggles in dealing with radical extremism and violence. I wonder how many more countries and societies will be destroyed before we stop repeating too-little, too-late policies. More importantly, what will it take for us to stop wasting our time and energy in shallow and counter-productive blah-blahs and get our act together?
Until we invest in drying the wetlands, which keep producing these terrorists, killing the mosquitoes through expensive and costly wars will not get us anywhere. We, the global community, have to address the root causes of terrorism and invest heavily in improving the immune system of societies, which are vulnerable and weak in the face of this challenge. Otherwise, al Qaeda or similar evil beings will continue to find more safe havens and ruin more precious lives.
This column was originally published in the Duke Chronicle. It has been reprinted with permission.