The Fall of Timbuktu
In Mali, the French have been the margin between civilization and barbarism.
Reading accounts of France’s struggles to deploy a few thousand troops to its former colony of Mali, we found ourselves wondering: Whatever happened to the French Foreign Legion? Next thing we know, the city of Timbuktu has been taken from al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) by the Legion itself. Well, well: Tiens, voilà du boudin .
Brush wars can be a dirty business. In respect to Mali, there’s been no shortage of commentary noting that the government to whose rescue France has come is the product of a military coup. It is also noted that the war in Mali is an ethnic conflict, in which AQIM piggybacked on a separatist Tuareg movement. In other words, it’s all very complicated and morally ambiguous.
But tell that to the Malians who have greeted the French advance with cries of Vive la France! and merci, merci, merci. During AQIM’s nine month reign of terror, the group tried to trash Timbuktu’s historic libraries and other cultural treasures, and subjected the population to the kind of Sharia justice the Taliban made infamous in Afghanistan.
“Even if you’re talking to your own blood brother, they [AQIM] hit you,” one female resident told the Associated Press. “Even if you are wearing the veil, and it happens to slip off, they hit you.” Said another: “We were totally deprived of our liberty. We couldn’t listen to music, we couldn’t play soccer. We couldn’t wear the clothes we wanted.”
After taking Timbuktu on Monday, French and Malian troops liberated the last AQIM stronghold of Kidal three days later, and Francois Hollande declared “we are winning this fight.” That declaration is probably premature, especially if the French President decides to pull up stakes quickly.
Much better to leave a detachment of Legionnaires in-country to prevent AQIM from regrouping. The U.S. plan to establish a base for drones in neighboring Niger could also be a significant contribution to security in the Sahel, and would go some way toward redeeming the Obama Administration’s nonfeasance in Mali. Al Qaeda in the Maghreb has no intention of going away, and the West needs to gird for the long haul.
Meantime, it’s worth celebrating the French feat of arms. In Mali, they have been the margin between civilization and barbarism.
A version of this article appeared February 2, 2013, on page A14 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Fall of Timbuktu.