Davis: Following the Mali model

Feb. 10, 2013 @ 12:05 PM

In March 2001, two statues of Buddha -- one standing 170 feet tall and the other 114 feet -- dating from the sixth century were destroyed in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Why? Because the religious clerics running Afghanistan's Islamic government were offended by them.

The world had hints of Taliban's religious fanaticism before March 2001. Kite-flying was banned, as was music, the education of girls and colorful clothes. Six months after the destruction of the statues of Bamiyan, on 9/11, we would learn much more about the Taliban. The terrorists behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States belonged to al-Qaida, which had been given a safe haven in Afghanistan by the Taliban.

In reporting on the purported destruction of historical artifacts by jihadists in northern Mali recently, the Associated Press dutifully connected the event to what happened almost 12 years ago in Bamiyan. Last weekend as jihadists were fleeing the Mali city of Timbuktu, they torched buildings believed to contain what the Guardian newspaper described as "manuscripts [that] had survived for centuries in Timbuktu, on the remote south-west fringe of the Sahara desert."

"The vast majority of the texts were written in Arabic. A few were in African languages, such as Songhai, Tamashek and Bambara. There was even one in Hebrew. They covered a diverse range of topics including astronomy, poetry, music, medicine and women's rights. The oldest dated from 1204," the Guardian reported. A promising update that all might not be lost arrived later. News reports indicated that many of the manuscripts were hidden from the Islamists before the libraries were torched.

What a minute. Let's take a few steps back. What's going on in Mali, you might be asking? More importantly, you might wonder, why should I care? Allow me to attempt an answer. More precisely, I've turned to some trusted sources for insight.

Writing late last month in Foreign Affairs magazine, Susanna Wing declared, "The last few months have shaken Mali to its core. In March 2012, the country's 20-year relationship with democracy ended abruptly after a group of low-ranking military officers overthrew the government." Over 2012, various factions seeking to break away from Mali battled for control of the northern part of the landlocked west African nation. Supporting those rebels are Islamist groups that have attempted to institute an extreme version of Sharia law, the code used by the Taliban to terrorize Afghanis.

A Jan. 18 notice from the U.S. State Department warned Americans "against all travel to Mali because of ongoing fighting in northern and central Mali, fluid political conditions, the loss of government control of Mali's Northern provinces, and continuing threats of attacks and kidnappings of westerners."

Enter France's military into Mali, which was once a French colony. Earlier this year, 3,700 French soldiers supported by air power sought to take back northern Mali from the Islamists. The French named the operation Serval, which The Wall Street Journal reports is an "African wildcat known for its startling leaps to capture prey."

Malians recently liberated by the French described life under the radical rule of the Islamists. Adiarratou Sanogo, a 30-year-old school teacher, told The New York Times she was required to cover her head. "They shook a stick at me and said I must cover up or they would beat me," she said. "I ran inside to find a scarf."

The French effort is seen as preventing radical jihadists affiliated with al-Qaida from establishing a base camp in northern Mali. Because of this, Western governments, including the United States, provided assistance to French forces.

With the jihadists on the run, the French were in high spirits. The action was said to have boosted the sagging poll numbers of French President Francois Hollande. Laurent Fabius, France's foreign minister, signaled a next phase of the operation, "We decided to put in the means and the necessary number of soldiers to strike hard. But the French contingent will not stay like this. We will leave very quickly."

The hope is that African peacekeepers will maintain order until Mali gets back on its feet.

Perhaps France's one-month war is part of a trend. Ten years ago last month -- on Jan. 28, 2003 -- President George W. Bush's State of the Union address made the case for an invasion of Iraq. By the time Americans discovered many of the reasons offered were based on fictions, half-truths and exaggerations, it was too late to prevent the massive loss of blood and treasure that accompanied the U.S. occupation of Iraq. It seems more likely that Western nations will follow the limited Mali model than the one attempted in Iraq last decade.

Bob Davis is associate publisher/editor of The Anniston Star.