The coalition of French and Malian Army troops took two major towns, Timbuktu and Gao, in north Mali on Tuesday with little resistance from Islamist rebels, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI) and its allies. The coalition troops then took Kibal on Wednesday. Controlling these major cities is an important marker in the reconquest of the north and the expulsion of the Islamist rebels in Mali to the desertic part of the country. Tweet
The liberation of Timbuktu and Gao has been welcomed by jubilant residents there. During the months in which the rebels controlled the area, strict Sharia law was implemented and restricted peoples’ basic freedoms.
Timbuktu has been particularly touched by these exactions as many centuries-old mausoleums were destroyed by the rebels, who claimed they offend Islam. On Friday, before leaving the town, rebels also set fire to the Ahmed Baba Centre for Documentation and Research, which housed thousands of invaluable ancient manuscripts, considered world heritage artifacts by UNESCO. The extent of the damages remains unknown at this time.
French reporters have released images of people celebrating the liberation from the rebels with women taking their veil off, men smoking, and music playing.
The relief is also shared by the rest of the country, as the Islamist threat is pushed further North and away from the capital. Before the French intervention, the threat of having the rebels take Bamako was strong, endangering the country’s economic center and 10% of the population.
French nationals living in Bamako told IVN the progression of the rebels toward the south had left the the habitants of Bamako living in fear. Many worried of terrorist attacks, especially those targeting French citizens. Without the quick improvement of the situation brought on by the French intervention, many would have been forced to flee the country.
The rebel retreat should allow Mali to regain some stability. However, the recent victories is not viewed as a complete defeat of the Islamist groups.With very few rebels killed or captured, Islamists groups have simply recoiled to the vast and mountainous region of Mali and have not necessarily been stymied on the whole.
Hilary Clinton perfectly summarized the situation. “This is going to be a very serious, ongoing threat because if you look at the size of northern Mali, if you look at the topography – it’s not only desert, it’s caves,” she said. “Sounds reminiscent. We are in for a struggle. But it is a necessary struggle. We can not permit northern Mali to become a safe haven.” Tweet quote: Tweet
Many steps remain to be taken to return Mali to some sense of normalcy. In the short term, the French army needs to remain in the newly reconquered territory to prevent retaliation against the Arab population of the country, especially from the Malian military. Human rights NGOs have already alerted the UN of exactions from the Malian military.
France and the international community will also need to help Mali’s political institution get back on their feet, which include organize a new presidential election if they want a strong government to take a greater role in the fight against AQIM.
A long term strategy will have to be put in place in order to efficiently fight militancy in the region, including a potential alliance with the secular Touaregs, the MNLA, who have announced that they are willing to support the French army in its efforts against AQMI and its allies. That type of action will certainly require a reopening of the negotiations with the Malian government about the Touareg demand for autonomy. Tweet
Finally, more resources need to be attributed to the operation in Mali by the diversely interested parties if the operation is to be successful.