July 8, 2013

DON’T LOOK now, but the most recent Muslim country to experience a Western military intervention is confounding the pessimists — including a few in the Obama administration. Over the weekend, the north African state of Mali lifted a state of emergency so that three dozen candidates could begin campaigning in a presidential election scheduled for later this month. This came just six months after France deployed troops to prevent the takeover of the country by Islamic militants linked to al-Qaeda. Since then, the extremists have been routed and dispersed, a peace accord reached with a separatist movement and a U.N. peacekeeping force launched.

Mali’s troubles are far from over, but France’s decision to disregard U.N. and U.S. advice to postpone any intervention is looking better and better. The country’s crisis began in 2012, when ethnic Tuareg separatists in the north joined with Islamic militants to take over several cities, including the ancient crossroads of Timbuktu. Their success prompted a military coup against the elected government, which in turn prompted a cutoff in aid from the United States. For months Western and African governments debated whether to intervene against the Islamists, even as the militants imposed a reign of terror in areas under their control. The U.N. Security Council authorized an intervention in late 2012, then fecklessly decided to postpone it until this fall.

That prompted the Islamists to launch an offensive in January to capture the capital, which would have succeeded if not for the eleventh-hour arrival of French warplanes and troops. When the government of François Hollande asked the United States for help with refueling, the White House delayed its response, then asked to be reimbursed for any costs. Officials, meanwhile, disparaged the French mission, claiming that it would only make the crisis worse by alienating potentially reconciliable rebels, such as the Tuaregs.

That’s not what happened. Instead Paris used a combination of force and diplomacy to retake the principal city occupied by Tuareg forces, Kidal. Months of negotiations led to a deal last month between the Malian government and Tuareg leaders, under which the latter agreed to give up their demand for a separate state in exchange for greater sovereignty. Last weekend the Malian army reentered Kidal, provoking demonstrations; though tensions remain high so far, violence has been limited to stone-throwing.

France, which retains 3,000 troops in the country, plans to withdraw all but 1,000 after the presidential election. The U.N. peacekeeping force, which is being jump-started with African troops already in the country, will eventually grow to 12,000, including 500 from China. But the timetable may be a problem: Eager to be out, France has been pressing for the July 28 election date despite warnings from the electoral commission that it cannot properly prepare a voter registry and distribute ballots by then. One of the presidential candidates has petitioned the supreme court to delay the election by several months; nongovernmental experts agree, warning that an early vote will yield an unstable government. Having progressed this far, Malian authorities and their French allies would be wise to give the electoral process more time.