News from Timbuktu is rare, but these days there is too much of it.
Religious fanatics have been destroying exquisite ancient tombs that are cultural icons of universal value. Women who used to walk freely now fear to leave their homes without veils. Schools, clinics, and banks have been looted and burned.
Militants who embrace the rigid Salafi brand of Islam are on a rampage in Timbuktu and other parts of Mali, an ancient, landlocked North African nation that was once the seat of a trading empire. They are allied with Al Qaeda.
Already they control a thinly populated region larger than Texas. It is not difficult to imagine this region becoming an incubator of terrorism and transnational crime — or to imagine that the United States will react by making Mali the newest front in its ever-expanding drone war.
This catastrophe did not “just happen.” It is the direct result of an episode that may at first seem unrelated: the US-led intervention in Libya last year. Rarely in recent times has there been a more vivid example of how such interventions can produce devastating unexpected results.
Under the regime of Moammar Khadafy, who was killed during the Libyan war, a portion of the army was made up of Tuaregs. They are a nomadic people whose traditional homeland is centered in northern Mali. After Khadafy was deposed, they went home — armed with potent weaponry they brought from Libya. Seeking to press their case for a homeland in Mali, they quickly overran the lightly armed Malian army.
Into this upheaval stepped another group, shaped not by ethnicity but by devotion to an extreme form of Islam. It has attracted Al Qaeda militants from many countries, including Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, and Algeria. They seek to create a pure Muslim state — and are destroying mosques and Islamic monuments that they believe represent the wrong kind of Islam.
This is an emerging crisis that could engage the world for years. A vast region has fallen out of the control of central government and into the hands of violent radicals. They may cause far more death and suffering than Khadafy ever did.
Four officials in Washington pressed hard for intervention in Libya last year and managed to persuade President Obama that it was necessary to avoid a humanitarian disaster. When the four of them — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Ambassador to the United Nation Susan Rice, and two staff members at the National Security Council, Samantha Power and Gayle Smith — decided to lobby for this intervention, did they consider the possible consequences?
It is tempting to imagine that the four knew about the role of Tuaregs in Khadafy’s army, understood that the Tuaregs would return to Mali if Khadafy were overthrown, and realized that this would throw a swath of North Africa into chaos. It is also unlikely. Americans rarely consider the possible negative consequences of foreign interventions.
By building a jihadist army in Afghanistan, the United States helped create a transnational terrorist force that has plunged an entire region into war. The invasion and occupation of Iraq set off a shattering civil conflict. Now Mali can be added to the list of countries that have been pushed into instability by American-led military action.
Intervening violently in the politics of another country is like releasing a wheel at the top of a hill: you have no idea how it will bounce or where it will end up. Perhaps it is too much to expect that well-meaning amateurs like the “gang of four” who pushed the United States into war in Libya would know enough about the country to understand what the consequences of their action might be. It should at least be possible, however, to hope that policy planners would recognize their ignorance. A dose of humility might lead them to realize that military intervention always produces unforeseen consequences.
The American-led intervention in Libya may have given Al Qaeda one of its greatest triumphs since 9/11. This is especially sobering as the United States contemplates a military attack on Iran or Syria. Overwhelming military power guarantees short-term victory in these interventions.
No amount of weaponry, however, can prevent the devastating “blowback” that often follows. The suffering people of Mali are the latest to learn this tragic lesson.
Stephen Kinzer, who teaches at Boston University, is writing a biography of John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles.