French mission in Mali must be short
France sent soldiers to Mali on Friday, and with a little help from the government's own largely ineffectual army, the French troops speedily retook the dusty town of Konna from the Islamist radicals who had moved into it last week.
It is unsettling to see the former colonial power intervening this way, more than 50 years after Mali became independent. But François Hollande, the French president, had evidently decided that the Islamists had to be stopped and that Malian and African forces were not up to the job. It is hard to fault Mr Holland on either conclusion.
Mali became collateral damage after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi; the tumult in nearby Libya sent a cascade of weaponry to both Islamist zealots and the indigenous Tuareg people of Mali's Saharan reaches, where the government in distant Bamako never did have a strong grip.
When the elected government was toppled by the military last March, the Tuareg and the Islamists were left to battle over the north; the Islamists, though not themselves fully united, have now largely won that fight.
The idea of a new stronghold for Al Qaeda has no appeal for Mali's neighbours, nor for the rest of the world. So last October the United Nations, in its ponderous way, authorised the Economic Community of West African States to intervene militarily to restore order, on behalf of the Bamako government. Ecowas, after long deliberation, decided in its wisdom that action might be possible - by late this year. This is a sad reminder that many African regional institutions are still more theory than practice.
Mr Hollande was not content to let Ecowas fiddle while Mali burns. Capable soldiers have their uses; the northern groups now seem to be in retreat. (But intervention is risky, too: a Friday raid in Somalia, to free a captured French trooper, failed, killing him and a French commando.)
French troops are not a long-term solution for Mali. But halting the rebel advance could give time to build up a strong, elected government that can reflect the country's diversity and make the necessary compromises. And it could give Ecowas time to organise a northern push.
The experience of another former colonial power, in another West African state, is instructive. In May 2000, British forces intervened in Sierra Leone's long civil war, and within just a few months a ceasefire deal was in place, and talks on disarmament underway.
The French should follow a similar blueprint in Mali. If they can they will in fact be, paradoxically, protectors of Malian independence and unity.
Updated: January 13, 2013 04:00 AM