The French are having initial and not unexpected success in Mali. Their fast-moving troops have taken the major city of Gao and are now about to enter fabled Timbuktu. Their advance was made possible–just as with the rapid American success in Afghanistan in 2001 and in Iraq in 2003–by the revulsion of ordinary people with a hated and despotic regime. Incredibly, Malians are shouting “Vive la France” to welcome their onetime colonial rulers back.
The epitaph–at least for the time being–for Islamist rule in northern Mali comes from a 26-year-old Malian student quoted in the New York Times lamenting: “No smoking, no music, no girlfriends. We couldn’t do anything fun.” This recalls the Iraqi man who famously greeted the American invasion of Iraq with those immortal words: “Democracy! Whiskey! Sexy!”
Unfortunately, Iraqi elation at being liberated soon turned to anger because the U.S. did not do enough to secure the country, allowing the creation of chaotic conditions in which insurgents and criminals ran rampant. That is a lesson France must keep in mind today even as French politicians constantly affirm their desire to evacuate Mali as soon as possible–a hope that echoes the sentiments of Donald Rumsfeld and Tommy Franks during the initial invasion of Iraq.
The French desire to leave Mali is understandable–as was the American desire to leave Iraq. But if the Iraq War taught us anything it should be that an invading force cannot responsibly head for the exits until it has made some provision to maintain stability and security.
In the case of Mali this will be a formidable and long-term challenge. The Malian army is feeble, better at staging coups than fighting hardened Islamist rebels. The peacekeeping force contributed by neighboring West African states is not much better–it is badly armed, ill-trained, and lacking in the most basic equipment. In any case a few thousand troops, even if they were trained and equipped to a much higher standard, would find it challenging to secure an area the size of Texas.
The French troops are currently in the “clear” phase of their counterinsurgency campaign, but unless they stick around for follow-on “clear and hold” operations, their initial gains are likely to prove fleeting. The Islamist guerrillas are retreating so they can fight another day. Stopping them from coming back is going to prove, at least for the short term, beyond the capabilities of the African military forces on the ground. Either France stays and helps to do the job itself or the cheers its troops are now hearing will soon turn to jeers.