France’s decision to send troops to aid Mali’s beleaguered government, which is under attack from Islamist extremists who took control of the northern half of the country one year ago, is both justified and necessary. The French government has been laying the groundwork for an international intervention for months, helping to push through a United Nations resolution that authorizes an international, African-led force to protect Mali, which has been in turmoil since fighters and weapons flooded out of Libya after the ousting of Moammar Khadafy.
But the planned UN force, comprised of Mali’s neighbors, was not due to arrive until September. As rebels pushed further into the south, taking the strategic town of Konna, Mali’s leaders begged both the UN and France to speed up their aid. France, which ruled Mali until 1960, responded. Only swift, decisive action could have stopped the rebel advance.
The accelerated campaign means that the international community has had little time to plan for the refugees and political turmoil that this military campaign will surely produce. The protection of civilians must remain the central goal and highest priority. Indeed, the Taliban-style floggings, amputations, and executions that have spread across rebel-held territory provide a strong human rights justification for intervention. But there is credible evidence that the Malian army has also committed grave human-rights abuses in their attempts to squash the uprising. Amnesty International has documented the indiscriminate bombing of civilians, the collective punishment of the Tuareg ethnic group, which is associated with the rebellion, and even the singling out for punishment of light-skinned people who look like they might be Tuareg. France must take steps to ensure that the perpetrators of such crimes are removed from Mali’s military and are not allowed to fight alongside its troops.
Even if France and Mali’s neighbors are able to swiftly re-take the north, that will only be a tiny first step in a long road to Mali’s recovery. At the end of the day, it is Mali’s government and army that must hold the territory. They are not only weak, but discredited by a military coup staged last March by soldiers who were disatisfied by the president’s response to the rebellion. After this crisis is over, they must return the country to democratic, civilian rule. Building a strong, credible, competent government that serves all its citizens is the only long-term solution for Mali, which has battled rebellions from the north for decades.