SOME OF the most heartening stories of the week came from, of all places, northern Mali, where the nearly bloodless recapture of the ancient city of Timbuktu by French and Malian government troops produced a flag-waving outpouring of joy and relief. For nearly 10 months, residents had endured a reign of terror: Militants linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) whipped unveiled women, amputated hands and feet, and stoned to death suspected adulterers. Stopping such horrors, which caused 400,000 people to flee the Texas-size region, was one indisputable benefit of France’s military intervention; under the plan for Mali supported until last month by the United States and United Nations, no help would have come for the people of Timbuktu or other towns until the end of this year, at the earliest.
The problem now is sustaining that success. The terrorists are dispersed but far from defeated; probably they will have to be tracked down in the desert. Mali’s army, routed just months ago by the rebels, is nowhere near able to secure the country on its own, and an African intervention force being assembled will be hard-pressed to do so even after planned training by a European Union mission.
That’s why it was alarming to see the statement by French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian immediately after the capture of Timbuktu: “The mission,” he declared, “has been fulfilled.” Sound familiar?
Both the French and their reluctant allies in the Obama administration have the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan very much in mind: The French don’t want their troops to be drawn into a prolonged operation, and the White House would have been happier if they had not gone at all. But Paris may be on the verge of repeating the mistake of George W. Bush: declaring “mission accomplished” before security has been restored or a viable postwar regime established.
Already there are worrying reports from Timbuktu and other liberated towns of revenge attacks against Arabs or ethnic Tuaregs accused of supporting the rebels. Human Rights Watch reported Friday that Malian troops had carried out the summary execution of at least 13 suspected Islamists. Mali’s government is still in the hands of military officers following a coup last year, and it will be months, at best, before a civilian government can take office through democratic elections. Peace will require a political settlement between the central government and Arab and Tuareg groups in the north, something that would require long and difficult negotiations.
There are, of course, risks to extending the French military mission, which at week’s end had suffered no fatalities and was popular at home. But the bigger danger is that Western troops will be pulled from the country too quickly. The French should remain at least until the African force is fully trained, and it should continue to pursue AQIM — with aerial and intelligence help from the United States.