Thanks to the timely and surgically effective intervention of hundreds of French paratroopers and almost 3,000 support forces, the cities and towns of northern Mali have been cleared of criminal Islamists linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Keeping them from returning, filtering in from desert redoubts, will be the job of almost 5,000 African troops from six countries plus what is left of the Malian army. The United Nations says it, too, will send peacekeepers.
The French have shown how to bomb, strafe and chase militants out of cities and towns where the local inhabitants had been held captive and subjected to mindless sharia-rationalized brutalities and strictures. The local Muslim population, now rejoicing, has resumed playing music, dressing in bright colours, sharing intimate joys and pursuing normal lives without fear of fundamentalist punishments. No longer are Islamists able to cut off the hands of alleged thieves or to stone alleged adulterers to death.
Now the big tasks ahead are how to continue to protect the civilian population in northern Mali, how to pursue the Islamists into the deep desert north of Timbuktu and Kidal, and how to provide meaningful autonomy for the Tuareg, who are northern Mali’s main minority and who originally sparked the insurgency. The French (assisted by British and Canadian trainers) will also want to forge both the Malian army and the West African soldiers, who have followed the French northward, into a cohesive and strongly led force. That will take time and skill; creating a responsible and responsive command structure from among so many different national elements, plus the fractured Malian army, will be extremely complex and frustrating.
Fundamental to each of these tasks is re-democratizing Mali itself. From 1992 to 2012, Mali was a democracy, albeit corrupt and only adequately governed. Then, in March, disaffected junior officers led by Captain Amadou Sanogo sent President Amadou Toumani Touré packing and established military control of the country. They blamed the democratic civilian government, rather than their own ranks, for letting insurgents gain strength in the north; the government had not provided the army with sufficient resources – or so the junior officers complained.
But the coup leaders did not set out to mobilize against al-Qaeda in the north. Instead, they acquired resources in and around the capital, Bamako, ousted a civilian prime minister (someone they had installed) and tried to prevent West African leaders and the African Union from nudging Mali back onto the democratic path.
Interim President Dioncounda Traoré invited the French troops into Mali last month when it became clear that the mutinous local army would continue to squabble, rather than head north, and when Ansar Dine and other al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents began attacking southern Mali and heading toward unprotected Bamako. It is now time for Nigerian, Togolese and other West African forces in Mali to curtail the freedom of the Malian coup leaders and shore up the interim civilian government. Mr. Traoré has promised to hold national elections this summer, which might conceivably restart the democratic process. But first he and neighbouring countries will have to find a way to permanently sideline Capt. Sanogo and the other junior officers.
If they can place Mali into a kind of temporary African trusteeship, civility and good governance can gradually be restored to the country (where three-quarters of the population live in the south, especially in Bamako and Ségou), while autonomous arrangements are made with and for the Tuareg belonging to the secular National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (a Tuareg word for northern Mali).
Simultaneously, the remnants of Ansar Dine and al-Qaeda need to be pursued northward and eastward beyond Timbuktu and Kidal into the mountains and desert of the Sahara. That is what the French are now doing. Capturing or otherwise eliminating the 2,000 or so fleeing militants will be trying – but made easier if Algeria closes its border with Mali and secures it with its own hardened troops. (Algeria is now furious with Ansar Dine, in part its own creation, so that fury may help.) According to former Canadian ambassador Robert Fowler, who was held captive in the Sahara for five months by a group of Tuareg militants, the insurgents know how to live in and off the desert. Of the West African troops, only those of Chad have any experience chasing small groups in a desert setting.
The French think they can now retreat proudly. But they will be needed as a deterrent, and as a prod and example to the West Africans and the Malians, for months to come. Likewise, European and Canadian training forces will have a long but very critical slog. Ultimately, however, Mali as a democracy and northern Mali as an oasis of good government and non-fundamentalist Islam are definitely worth saving and securing.
Robert I. Rotberg is the Fulbright research chair in political development at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and visiting Fulbright scholar at the Centre for International Governance Innovation. He is president emeritus of the World Peace Foundation and the founding director of the Program on Intrastate Conflict and Conflict Resolution at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.