To ensure that Mali is not another Afghanistan, it is vital that
France and the international community have reliable allies on the
ground. They should mount diplomatic and economic efforts ‑ not just
lethal force ‑ against the jihadists as well.
Many commentators immediately dismissed France's intervention. Some denounced it as "militarism." Others declared it "neo-colonialism." The most common phrase was "quagmire."
In Washington, even some Obama administration officials
played down the threat that Mali represented, arguing that Western
troops may have made things worse. Isolationism is politically easy but
the wrong course. No American ground troops should be deployed, but the
Obama administration should assist the French with logistics and
Lost in the so-far skeptical response to the intervention is a clear
truth on the ground. For now, public opinion in Mali and across West
Africa is hugely supportive of the French intervention. Press reports
indicate that before the French arrived, the 1.8 million people of
Bamako, Mali's capital, were increasingly terrified that Islamists would take the city.
"People have started to smoke cigarettes and wear long pants!" one taxi driver declared after France intervened. "They're playing soccer in the streets!"
From a military standpoint, the French had to act. More than 8,000 French citizens live in Mali, many of
them in Bamako. And last week militant groups were on the verge of
seizing a militarily vital airfield in the town of Sevare. Had the field
been overrun, it would have been enormously difficult for troops from
France or a UN-mandated West African force to have moved into Mali.
Gregory Mann, a Columbia University history professor and an expert on Mali, has written the best analysis
I have found of the intervention. The crisis "needs diplomatic
intervention every bit as urgently as it needed military intervention,"
"Mali's troubles come largely from beyond the country's borders, as
do most of the jihadi fighters," Mann told me in an email message. "It
will take a coalition of countries to confront them, and building and
maintaining such a coalition should be the diplomats' first priority."
Fears of a quagmire are understandable. The problems
that have plagued Mali in recent years after decades of stability sound
familiar: government corruption, ethnic and separatist tensions, drug
trafficking, meddling neighbors and increasingly weak national
institutions, particularly the army.
A previous American effort to train the Malian army to fight Islamists failed spectacularly. And the French intervention is likely to spark retaliatory attacks like the seizure of dozens of foreign hostages
in Algeria on Wednesday. Post-Iraq and Afghanistan, skepticism about
any Western military intervention is healthy. And France's record of
intervention ‑ from Algeria to Vietnam ‑ is poor. But Malians are
calling for help, and a UN effort to counter the militants has stalled.