Mr. President, I rise today to address a challenging situation in Mali. Mali is a West African country, a country of nearly half a million square miles. A vast country, that stretches from the Sahara Desert to the Niger River area and is home to roughly 15 million people. Yet it's not at the top of the list of concerns for many Americans. Mr. President, this spring, back in March, a rogue element in Mali's security forces launched a coup and forcefully overthrew a long-standing democratically elected government in the nation of Mali, our ally.
This may seem inconsequential to the average American, but it could have big implications for our security, as well as that of our regional and global allies. Because in the power vacuum that was created in that spring coup, al Qaeda saw an opportunity and they stepped in. Three different extremist groups all linked to or controlled by al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb, known as AQIM, now control an area the size of Texas in the northern part of Mali. They succeeded in fracturing a formerly stable democracy and contributing to broad security, political and humanitarian crises that I believe have grave implications for the Sahel region and for America's interests.
To put it simply, Mr. President, this matters. Mali, a relatively strong democracy for more than two decades and an ally of the United States, is now embroiled in turmoil. The United States in partnership with the international community must show leadership in helping it rebuild its democracy and restore its territorial integrity by reclaiming northern Mali from terrorists and extremists.
So this morning as the chair of the African Affairs Subcommittee of the Foreign Relations Committee, on which we serve, Mr. President, I chaired a hearing to assess developments and the path forward for U.S. policy in Mali. What I heard from our experts, from the Department of Defense, from the State Department, from USAID, as well as a range of outside experts and one witness who testified from Bamako, the capital of Mali, was of real concern to me. Northern Mali today is the largest terrorist controlled area in the world. In the north, extremists have imposed a harsh and strict version of Sharia, or Islamic law, and committed gross violations of human rights.
Many folks have heard of Timbuktu, but don't know that it's an ancient city in northern Mali. A site where these Islamic extremists have behaved much as the Taliban did in Afghanistan before 9/11, destroying sacred, religious, and historic artifacts in Timbuktu, imposing a harsh version of Sharia that has meant amputations, stonings, violations of women's rights, of free speech and religious free exercise rights, fundamentally changing the tolerant and inclusive history of Mali and creating with it a humanitarian crisis as more than 400,000 Malians have fled, either internally displaced within Mali or going into neighboring countries as refugees.
With growing ties between these terrorists and Nigeria, Libya and throughout the region, AQIM, we believe, may now use its safe haven in northern Mali to plan for regional or transnational terrorist attacks. And just as we should not have ignored developments in Afghanistan, which seemed a remote and troubled country when the Taliban took it over more than a dozen years ago, so, too, we would ignore the chaos in northern Mali at our peril.
In fact, Secretary Clinton has recently said that Mali has now become a "powder keg" of potential instability in the region and beyond. The top American military commander in Africa, General Carter Ham, said publicly just this week that al Qaeda is operating terrorist training camps in northern Mali and providing arms, explosives and financing to other terrorist groups in the region.
So I believe it's critical that the United States have a strong and comprehensive policy to deal with this threat. I'm concerned that the current U.S. approach may not be forward leaning enough to address all three crises -- security, political and humanitarian -- in a coordinated, comprehensive and effective way, at the same time. Given the compelling U.S. interest in stability and security and good governance in Mali, we must ensure we don't miss the bigger picture of what this situation means for the future of Mali, to our allies, and to our security.
The U.N. Security Council is now considering what they call a concept of operations for an African-led military operation. The U.S. can and should play a more active role in supporting this and preventing the country from becoming a permanent home for extremists and a safe haven for terrorists. An active role, Mr. President, does not mean putting American boots on the ground. Instead, we can provide operational support for a regionally-led, multilateral, African-led force being organized by ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, and the African Union.
In the weeks ahead, the U.N. Security Council will likely vote on a resolution authorizing this coalition to lead a military intervention to dislodge the terrorists in the north. We've seen models like this work, in Cote d'Ivoire and Somalia, so there's reason to believe in the potential of a regional military solution to the security crisis in the north. However, even if this intervention works, it will take time to train and equip and assemble the regional force and to develop the appropriate plans for what happens during and after a military intervention. And, frankly, Mr. President, security and stability can't be restored to Mali with military action alone.
The current crisis is as much about governance as it is about security. A stronger Malian democracy is the best way to ensure security and societal gains in the short-term and the long-term. But democracy doesn't just begin or end with an election. One of the reasons Mali's democracy crumbled so quickly was that Malians did not feel connected to or represented by or well served by their government. Voter turnout in the last few elections was lower and lower, with the government viewed as corrupt, social services not benefiting the relatively sparsely populated north, and institutions nationwide that were weak. The political and security challenges in Mali are two sides of the same coin. They're not separate issues.
So I will urge that we break down silos between departments and agencies in our government and take a comprehensive view. If we focus on the political only and insist on Mali moving forward briskly with an election, even when the security situation will prevent most northern Malians from meaningfully participating, I think we risk unintentionally strengthening the hand of those who want to ensure that Mali's regional divide is permanent and hand a symbolic victory to al Qaeda. On the other hand, if we rush forward with a security solution, with a regional military intervention before it's adequately planned for, before they are responsibly trained and equipped, we risk defeat on that front as well.
I think we can and should do better. We can work closely with our allies, with regional partners, and the international community to address all the security, political and humanitarian crises unfolding in Mali. Effective, inclusive elections early next year should be one goal, but not the only one. We also have to address the ongoing humanitarian crisis of the 400,000 displaced persons and refugees and the more than 4.5 million people in need of emergency food aid in the region, and the security crisis of terrorists controlling an area this large.
To bring long-term peace and stability to Mali and to ensure northern Mali doesn't slide into being the base of operations for the next al Qaeda attack on our allies, our interests abroad or even the United States, we can't afford to ignore any of the pieces of this complex puzzle. Mr. President, the United States simply cannot afford, despite the many distractions and other priorities facing us, to ignore Mali.
And I pledge to work in great partnership with my colleagues here in the Senate and my friends on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to ensure an effective engagement by the United States in this important area.