‘Liberated’ Malians cheer as UK sends in troops

Liberté! French flag in hand, children watch as Malian troops arrive in Timbuktu © Getty Images

In just a fortnight, French troops have swept rebels from strongholds in Mali they occupied for almost a year. But as Britain joins the campaign, this ‘victory’ could be only the beginning.

Jubilant crowds lined the dusty streets as armoured vehicles rolled into Timbuktu. ‘Vive la France,’ they shouted, ‘vive le Mali!’ Some welcomed the troops with a dance, and one man even greeted them in a suit hand-sewn from French flags.

For almost a year, Mali’s most famous city had been occupied by Islamist militants. Singing, dancing and smoking were banned, women were forced to cover their faces, and the penalty for disobedience was mutilation or death. In a region where few have much sympathy with radical Islamism, the oppression was heavily felt.

Now, with help from France and from African neighbours, the Malian government is retaking the territories recently lost to rebels. In their wake the liberating army leaves a carnival atmosphere. ‘We’re having a party,’ said one Timbuktu resident; ‘we’ve been prisoners.’

French commanders are pleased too: just two weeks after President Francois Hollande announced the intervention, three major towns have been recaptured and the rebels are in rapid retreat. In Timbuktu, militants were so weakened by air raids that the town was taken without a shot being fired.

Yet just as Malians were celebrating their liberation, the British government announced plans to send in 330 military personnel to support the ongoing campaign. The message is clear: this might look like ‘mission accomplished’, but there could be much more work ahead.

The first job for the British troops will be to train African soldiers in preparation for a final push into remaining rebel strongholds. But their toughest task may come once the militants have taken refuge in the sparsely-populated desert regions of northern Mali – an area bigger than France itself.

The loosely-organised militants cannot directly challenge the well-drilled, well-equipped French army. But as Western experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq have shown, a campaign of bombings, ambushes and assassinations by an elusive enemy could be much harder to defeat.

Mission creep?

In November 2001, BBC correspondent John Simpson rode into Kabul with NATO troops and declared it ‘liberated’ from the Taliban. Twelve years later, British troops are still struggling against insurgents. Could the UK be drawn into a deepening conflict in Mali?

Some believe that advanced and ruthless guerrilla tactics have blunted the effectiveness of Western military intervention: no matter how great the invading force, it can never defeat an enemy that fights ‘from the shadows’. But others hope the Generals have learned their lessons from recent conflicts. With a cautious approach and help from local troops, they say, this force can liberate Mali once and for all.

You Decide

  1. Are Western countries too quick to use military intervention?
  2. Will French and British troops still be in Mali in three years’ time?

Activities

  1. Imagine you are a local journalist in Timbuktu. Write an article for a local paper describing how you felt when your city was liberated from rebel rule.
  2. Some military commanders fear that the conflict in Mali could turn into what is known as ‘asymmetric warfare’. Do some research and write a brief description of what this means, using examples from history.

Some People Say...

“There’s no such thing as a quick victory in war.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Does this mean Britain is in another war?
The government is keen to stress that the military personnel being sent to Mali will not be acting in a combat role. They will provide logistical support, train soldiers from English-speaking African countries and undertake surveillance missions. This does not really qualify as being at war, although they will be active in a very dangerous environment.
Will it make any difference to people at home?
Al Qaeda has warned that it will take revenge on Western powers who intervene in Mali – so it’s possible that the risk of terrorist attacks in Europe has increased. On the other hand, experts say that Northern Mali was already a breeding ground for militants; so defeating the rebellion could equally make the world a safer place.

Word Watch

Timbuktu
Founded in the 12th Century, Timbuktu quickly became a hub of learning in the Islamic world. Many important academics worked at its renowned university, leaving behind them a store of unique and valuable literature. Believing that the library fostered blasphemous literature, the militants set fire to it before leaving the city – though some of the city’s inhabitants tried to save the burning books.
African neighbours
A coalition of West African nations including Guinea, Benin and the Ivory Coast has sent troops into Mali to assist the government in defeating rebels. Others, including English-speaking countries such as South Africa, are also providing support.
Desert regions
Two-thirds of Mali’s surface is covered by desert. In the north of the country is the Sahara, the hottest desert in the world. Further south is the Sahel, where conditions are less harsh, but still hot and dry enough to make human habitation a challenge. This geography makes Mali one of the least densely-populated countries in the world.

Subjects

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