A Malian soldier is seen on patrol near the village of Kadji in Gao March 1, 2013. (Reuters)

As French-backed Malian forces continue to battle an Islamist insurgency, the former U.S. ambassador to the North African country, Vicki Huddleston, spoke with VOA’s Carol Castiel on Press Conference USA about the challenges facing the divided nation and what concrete steps should be taken to prevent it from becoming a breeding ground for al-Qaida and criminal networks. Below, please find a transcription of select highlights of the interview. You can listen to a fuller version using the audio player below.

Castiel: Why is it in the U.S. national interest to assertively help save Mali from further chaos?

Huddleston: Quite simply, can we, can Africa, the West have a jihadist, terrorist state in the center of Africa? Are we willing to have a foreign occupier with a foreign religious ideology take over Mali and 12 million people? I can’t imagine this. And that, too, would spread. Niger is not a strong government, nor is Mauritania or Cameroon or Nigeria. We can’t not allow terrorists and crime to take over Africa. And the Africans themselves – that’s the most important thing – they don’t want al-Qaida to take over their countries.

Castiel: What do you think the role of the U.S. should be?

 QUICKTAKE: Stemming Al Qaida to Stabilize Mali

Amb. Vicki Huddleston

Huddleston: I think the U.S. needs to do quite a lot. First of all, the U.S. has a big responsibility; the U.S. has a responsibility because we led the coalition in Libya. The match that set the fire was Libya. That’s where the Tuareg troops came from and that’s where immense amounts of sophisticated weapons and vehicles came from. Second, we did not effectively help the region to form an effective military strategy. So with no regional military strategy, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and its breakaway Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa grew and prospered when this war could have been prevented.

“Mali in some ways is the mirror image of Sudan.” – Vicki Huddleston

Castiel: Didn’t the grievances by the Tuareg in Mali predate the influx of arms from Libya? Were there not grievances that Bamako did not address and to what extent do you think they contributed to this confluence of factors?

Huddleston: Let me say two things. Number one, the real problem is al-Qaida. Now, the Tuareg and their separatist desires are also a problem. That’s been going on for 50-60 years; they told the French they didn’t want to be a part of Mali and the French ignored them and made the boundaries the way they made them. If you look at the 15th parallel, it runs at the top of Senegal across the narrow part of Mali, where Timbuktu is, across Niger and across Sudan. Mali in some ways is the mirror image of Sudan. In the north of Sudan Arabs rule; they impose their rule on southern Sudan, 50 years of civil war, and we have a new state, South Sudan. In Mali, you have the majority population in the south, sub-Saharan Africa, it’s a democratic country, but still those people in the north, of North African origin, the nomads, don’t want to be part of the Malian state.

Castiel: You have said that Algeria is the key to stabilizing Mali. What do you mean, and do you think Algeria is prepared to do what it takes?

Huddleston: Sooner or later Algeria will have to do what it takes. Algeria is responsible in that al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, [Mokhtar] Belmokhtar (reported killed in early March 2013), [Abdelhamid] Abou Zeid (reported killed in late February 2013), [Abdelmalek] Droukdel, who is even now the leader, is in Algeria. This is an Algerian Salafist militant movement. So they went into Mali and restarted the Algerian civil war in Mali. Secondly, the people that we are talking about are with origins from North Africa. So it is the North African people that have the grievances against the Malian government. They’re critical to solving this problem. And, finally, Algeria is the only country in the region with the military capacity, command and control, sophisticated air and land mobility that could actually do the job.

“If [the Malian government doesn't] address the grievances of the north, then there will be no peace.” – Vicki Huddleston

Castiel: With respect to Algeria, to what extent do you think they will play a role in a potential U.N. stabilization force that’s being talked about for Mali? To what extent are they ready to take up the role that you are advocating?

Huddleston: Clearly, they’re showing some hesitancy, but there are three things that have to be done. You have to defeat the al-Qaida and you have to secure the area. Secondly, you have to address the grievances of the nomadic population in the north, perhaps some form of autonomy, and, third, you have to repair and mend the Malian government. Algeria is absolutely essential to all three. And I do not believe that Algeria can ignore its southern border.

Castiel: Can all of this take place in time for us to…prevent more threats from the al-Qaida-linked militants?

Huddleston: We have a good start; the French have done the right thing. Chadians and the French have been amazingly brave. Al-Qaida is being defeated; now we have to secure the region. So we have to make sure that this is done correctly, that there is a powerful military in the north, like the Algerians – or the French stay – that provide that security.  Secondly, you have to have that form of autonomy and to get autonomy you have to have a Malian government that speaks for the people. To me this means the region and the A.U. have to step in and step up and help make this agreement. And, finally, you need to have a Malian government representative of the people with the military back in the barracks, and I don’t think they are at this point.

Castiel: Are you optimistic or not about a political solution? Can Mali be put together and can a new government stabilize the country – and does that include addressing the grievances of the Tuareg population in the north?

Huddleston: If [the Malian government doesn't] address the grievances of the north, then there will be no peace. It was as this chief told me: ‘you will never control this area unless you work with us. We have been the masters of the desert for hundreds of years.’ That is absolutely true.

For more, listen to Vicki Huddleston’s full interview with Carol Castiel, also featuring VOA’s French to Africa Service broadcaster Idriss Fall.

 Post prepared by VOA Current Affairs intern Natalie Kudrle.

 QUICKTAKE: Stemming Al Qaida to Stabilize Mali

Carol S. Castiel

Carol S. Castiel is director of Current Affairs Programming for the English Division at the Voice of America. She produces and manages three 25-minute current affairs radio/Internet programs, which are broadcast weekly around the world on VOA’s short and medium wave frequencies. She hosts Press Conference USA, a newsmaker interview program, and Encounter, a news analysis show that elicits opposing perspectives on critical foreign or domestic policy issues. She also oversees the production of Issues in the News, a round-up of the week’s top stories by a panel of distinguished Washington-based journalists.