As rebels flee, world turns to challenge of repairing Mali

Toronto’s Globe and Mail reports: Faster than expected, a French-led offensive has swept into two key towns in northern Mali, putting Islamist rebels on the run. But as the insurgents melt back into the Sahara wastes, the world is left with the same dilemma as before: how to rebuild a shattered state that remains a haven for terrorists.

It’s a challenge that Western donors will confront at a conference on Tuesday, when the African Union pleads for more than $400-million to allow thousands of African troops to remain in Mali for at least a year. But money alone is not enough to put the country back together.

Canada is among the countries that will consider pledging funds to support Africa’s military effort. Canada is already contributing a massive military transport plane for a 30-day mission in Mali, and is considering other non-military help.

By capturing the strategic city of Gao and pushing the rebels out of the fabled town of Timbuktu on the weekend, the French and Malian forces have regained two of the three biggest urban centres in northern Mali with surprising ease.

Thousands of people celebrated in the streets of Gao on Sunday, dancing to music that had been banned under the harsh rule of the Islamist extremists. They cheered the French and Malian troops, greeting them as liberators from radical militias that had ruled with brutal force, compelling women to wear veils and amputating the hands of accused thieves.

Meanwhile, the insurgents were reported to have abandoned Timbuktu after repeated French air strikes, while French and Malian forces took control of its airport and probed into the ancient town, cautious because of the risk of ambush or counterattack.

Of the three main northern towns, only the town of Kidal – much further north – remains in rebel hands.

Yet the battle for the main towns was always destined to be the easiest step in a vastly complex task. The insurgents have spent months preparing a network of caves and tunnels in the desert and mountains. They have dramatically expanded their weaponry and vehicles. And they remain an elusive foe, ready to strike back when Mali is vulnerable again.

France has neither the resources nor the will to remain an occupying power in Mali indefinitely. The task for Africa and the West now is to restore Mali’s crumbling military and government structures, filling the vacuum that had allowed the Islamist radicals to thrive for years.

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