Hannah Armstrong writes: Mamadou Doumbia was so thrilled that France intervened this weekend to beat back a jihadi offensive in Mali that on Monday he took me to buy a French flag to mount next to the Malian flag on the dashboard in his taxi.
“If you had given me a French flag nine months ago,” he said, “I would have burned it.”
Just last week, Mamadou was waiting in Bamako in terror as the Al Qaeda-linked trinity that controls northern Mali and has imposed a form of Shariah law there advanced southward on multiple fronts. With the militants closing in on the buffer zone between the rebel-held north and the government-held south, the capital erupted in a series of antigovernment protests and strikes.
There was no doubt that Mali, whose political class and military forces were decimated by the northern rebellion and a coup d’état last March, was not ready to meet its enemy in battle. In Bamako, we were receiving reports that Malian soldiers were already starting to shed their uniforms and flee. The jihadis seemed set on capturing Sévaré, a garrison town about 350 miles northeast of Bamako, with an airport of unparalleled strategic importance.
But Monday, on our way to the busy intersection where a dozen young boys were selling French flags, Mamadou broke into an enormous smile upon hearing a radio broadcast from Sévaré. French airstrikes had killed 60 jihadi rebels in the northern city of Gao, it reported, and the rest were said to be running away. “People have started to smoke cigarettes and wear long pants!” Mamadou translated for me. “They’re playing soccer in the streets!” he said.
The French, by all accounts here, saved Mali from an existential threat and the region from the nightmare of seeing a terrorist stronghold expand.
Yet the hasty, ad hoc French deployment brings dangers of its own. One consequence is that it legitimizes the putschist regime that toppled a twice-elected president last March. Other governments, in particular Washington, had been reluctant to intervene in Mali, largely because of objections to the continued hold on power of Capt. Aya Sanogo, the leader of last year’s coup. The French’s push forward not only validates his presence; it enhances his powers. [Continue reading…]