Ambassador Huddleston: U.S. Must Save Mali

The casualties are still being counted from last week's attack on an Algerian gas plant by Islamist militants. The four-day siege left dozens of people dead. The group warned of more such attacks against any country backing France's military intervention in neighboring Mali. For a perspective on Mali, Renee Montagne talks to Vickie Huddleston, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Mali from 2002 to 2005.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The dead are still being counted from last week's attack and hostage drama at a natural gas plant in the remote desert of Algeria. Among those killed are dozens of foreign workers from Britain, Japan and elsewhere, with at least one from America. To get a better understanding of what is unfolding in the region and America's role in it, we're joined by Vickie Huddleston.

She was the U.S. ambassador to Mali from 2002 to 2005, and also has served as a deputy assistant secretary for African affairs in both the State and Defense departments. Good morning.

VICKIE HUDDLESTON: Good morning, Renee. Great to be with you.

MONTAGNE: The al-Qaida-linked attackers who attacked that natural gas plant in Algeria, they said this was in response to France's military intervention against Islamist forces in neighboring Mali. But is that the sum of what you think is happening here?

HUDDLESTON: Oh, not at all. Belmokhtar, the terrorist behind this, was an Algerian who came down after the civil war and intermarried into Malian families in the west - northwestern part of Mali. He got into the cigarette trade, and then he got into kidnapping Westerners. And from that, he and his group earned a great deal of money, about $90 million. So he knows Algeria.

He was planning this attack for months, and that just shows how bad the situation is. He can go up into Algeria or send his troops up there, carry out this atrocious attack on Algerians, on Westerners and on others who are up there, and then his forces can move back down into Mali and take safe haven.

MONTAGNE: In that region, which is the Sahara desert and also the Sahel, how dangerous is it? How many players are there now roaming around there and operating there?

HUDDLESTON: Well, this is the tragedy. At first, you know, it was 200, perhaps, troops coming out of Algeria who had been defeated in the civil war. Now, it's in the thousands. They have been joined by extremists from around the continent and from off the continent as they have developed links with Ansar al-Sharia and Libya and links with the bloody Boko Haram insurgency in northern Nigeria. So they are really all over this area. That's an area as large as Alaska.

MONTAGNE: The Obama administration until now has taken something of a go-slow, careful diplomatic approach to what was happening in Mali. Now that's connected up to Algeria. Was that a mistake?

HUDDLESTON: Yes, I think it was a mistake, because I think that you cannot ignore extremists. You have to confront and you have to defeat them. And that was the original idea of the United States Trans-Sahelian Counterterrorism Initiative, but it eventually changed to just containing.

MONTAGNE: In an op-ed in the New York Times recently, you proposed that the best way to go at this would be to get the Algerians to fight in Mali, but they don't look like they're looking to do that.

HUDDLESTON: Well, the reason I say that is that first of all, the Algerian army has a lot of capacity. We just saw that in the hostage-taking. The Algerians know this region backwards and forwards, because southern Algerian is part of that region. The Algerians, too, have a moral responsibility. The leaders of these al-Qaida groups have basically come from Algeria, and that means that Algeria must be involved in this.

MONTAGNE: Ambassador Huddleston, thank you very much for talking with us.

HUDDLESTON: Renee, it's been great. Thank you so much.

MONTAGNE: Vickie Huddleston served as U.S. ambassador to Mali from 2002 to 2005.

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