Some frankly silly thoughts and ideas have been punctured in the past few days about France's invasion of Mali. Most importantly, that the French military effort to roll back the advance of salafy jihadis who had captured much of the north of the country, bringing a reign of amputations and torture to locals for what they deemed violations of Islamic law, would turn into a repeat of Dien Bien Phu, where French forces were defeated by a 45,000 man Viet Minh army backed by both China and the Soviet Union.
No, it was never going to be like any of these places and historical contingencies. The simple fact that the United States' recent experience of war is of the long, grinding, expensive and inconclusive messes of Iraq and Afghanistan doesn't mean that other nations won't step more nimbly and carefully in their own wars. And while I don't know terribly much about Mali, I do know that the jihadis had nothing anywhere near either the number of fighters nor the powerful outside backers that the Viet Minh had at Dien Bien Phu and the Taliban, thanks to Pakistan's assistance, have today.
So here's one lesson we've learned so far: When the conditions are right, it's easier for professional, well-armed soldiers to defeat jihadi insurgents. France's war in Mali began on Jan. 11 and by Jan. 26 it was all but wrapped up.
Of course, a lot of the jihadis simply cut and ran, giving up the towns they'd held for months and in which, as they commonly do wherever they take control of the world, they'd alienated and antagonized the residents.
Could they come back? Sure. Mali's Tuareg's have had a bad relationship with the central government since the state was founded and while both the central government's troops and the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) are now eager to see the back of Al Qaeda-inspired groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Ansar al-Dine, they may find it hard to get along with each other for long.
Laura Seay, a political scientist who focuses on central Africa at Morehouse College, explained in Foreign Policy yesterday some of the specifics of Mali and why France has done relatively well so far.
How is Mali different from Afghanistan? First, Mali is not where empires go to die. Afghanistan is well-known as a place that has always been difficult for any outsiders to invade and sustain military engagement, much less establish governing institutions. What governing institutions are established have long been weak and largely decentralized structures that allow local and tribal leaders maximum autonomy. Mali, by contrast, has a longer history of at least some centralized rule. The Mali Empire, which governed a huge swath of West Africa from the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries, included the renowned city of scholarship in Timbuktu. Mali's colonization by France in 1892 was largely peaceful, and the country has never engaged in a serious war until now, with the exception of a brief and violent border dispute with Burkina Faso in the mid-1980s. France's exit from Mali at the end of colonization was accomplished peacefully as well.
France's engagement in Mali is also unlike U.S. engagement in Afghanistan in that, because of their colonial history, the French know what they are getting into. There are decades of outstanding French scholarship on Mali; France is practically drowning in Mali experts in government, academia, and the private sector. This is more important than many realize; having deep cultural and historical knowledge and a shared language (most educated Malians still speak French) makes it much easier for French forces to relate to average Malians and build friendships with key local leaders whose support will be necessary for long-term success.
As long as we're learning about history, it's also time to put to rest the foolish trope so popular in some American circles that France is a wimpy has-been power that doesn't dare get its feet wet, even in good causes. This month, they've beat back jihadis in Mali, at least giving the country a chance to work out its own internal problems (which of course, it may well fumble again.)
(Below, video of the cheese-eating surrender monkeys from the Foreign Legion's 2nd Parachute Regiment arriving in Timbuktu overnight on Monday.)