From afar, France’s military operations in Mali may look as if they’re another attempt by a European power to save a former African colony from a rebel force and restore a democracy.
Only this time it is different.
The rebels in northern Mali are militant jihadists allied with Al Qaeda. And they control a territory about the size of Afghanistan that could become a haven for training global terrorists.
Last week, when the rebels suddenly advanced toward Mali’s capital, France sent in fighter jets and troops with support from the United States, Britain, and other NATO allies.
Now the question is whether the two rebel groups – Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – should be defeated or simply contained.
The choice isn’t easy. But after all of the West’s struggles with Al Qaeda or its affiliates in Afghanistan, Yemen, and elsewhere, the best option for now should be containment.
This is not only because of war fatigue and budget woes in the West. Ever since 9/11, the actions of violent Islamists have turned off most Muslims. The Al Qaeda vision of a harsh theocracy that includes suppression of women and cruel punishment for social misdeeds has sown the seeds of its own destruction.
Violent jihadism, just like Soviet communism, can implode when contained. It relies on an ideology not grounded in humanity’s hope for freedom and individual rights.
Any strategy in Mali to contain Ansar Dine and AQIM should rely first on the fact that the Muslims there are moderates, rejecting any radical, distorted view of Islam. As was done recently in Somalia, the people of Mali should be supported in putting the rebels on the defensive. And neighboring African countries, many of which are also threatened by AQIM, should send in forces soon to take over from the French. The West’s presence in Mali must be not so visible as to give Al Qaeda an opportunity to recruit more followers.
The West should also not fear this latest outbreak of Islamic terror as much as help it implode on itself. This requires patience and diligence to help Mali build up its forces and recover from a recent coup. A separatist movement in the north by the Tuareg people needs to be resolved quickly as a Tuareg rebel group is aligned with AQIM.
Jihadists look for failed Muslim states with plenty of unguarded land. But once they gain a foothold, their methods of destruction are quickly seen. Nations can respond with limited military operations and other tactics of deterrence. They may not always work. The cold war had its failures and close calls.
Mali is the latest hot spot for testing the viability of radical Islam. By now, the world knows Al Qaeda’s ways are not popular. That must be proved in Mali before AQIM further advances its vision of a caliphate across northern Africa.