As early as the 11th century, Timbuktu was a hub for trade in salt and gold between black Africans, the Tuareg, and Arabs from the north. A meeting place for African scholars, Timbuktu was also a center of learning where thousands of manuscripts and books were written, and where universities much older than Harvard or Oxford were founded.
The broad region of West Africa that includes present-day Mali has had its share of geopolitical turmoil since at least the eighth century. From around 700-1235, the ancient empire of Ghana (not to be confused with present-day Ghana) ruled an area that is now southeastern Mauritania and western Mali. In the 13th and 16th centuries respectively, the Mali and Songhai empires successively rose to power and controlled vast areas of West Africa.
The Moroccan invasion in 1591 resulted in the eventual collapse of the Songhai Empire, marking the end of the region's role as a trading crossroads. Following the establishment of sea routes by the European powers, the trans-Saharan trade routes lost significance.
In the late 19th century, during the Scramble for Africa, France seized control of Mali, making it a part of French Sudan.
Mali gained independence from France in 1960 and experienced rapid economic growth in the 1990s, as well as a flourishing democracy and relative social stability. But also during that period, the nomadic Tuareg of the north were agitating, not for the first time, for autonomy or statehood. The insurgency intensified in 2007 and worsened in 2011, when there was a large influx of arms from the Libyan civil war. Taking advantage of the turmoil in northern Mali, the Saharan branch of Al-Qaeda Islamists seized control of the northern portion of the country. On March 21, 2012, a military coup toppled the democratically elected government, amplifying the nation's instability and playing further into Al-Qaeda's hands.
The Islamists have destroyed Timbuktu's ancient shrines, imposed draconian restrictions on Malians' culture and way of life, and meted out savage punishments to citizens according to arbitrary interpretations of Sharia law. Although Al-Qaeda gets most of the attention, a complex mix of local fighters and armed ethnic groups contribute to the political instability.
These include rebel elements like the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), a separatist Tuareg rebel group whose attempts to take over northern Mali formed the genesis of the present crisis, and the loosely allied National Front for the Liberation of Azawad (FNLA). Arrayed against the Tuareg separatists are ethnic militias like the Ganda Koy (Masters of the Earth) and GandaIzo, which have fought alongside the Malian army. Then there are Islamist elements like the Ansar al Din, a collection of local groups who want Sharia law to be implemented everywhere in Mali, and MUJAO, which is said to be a dissident group that split off from the well-resourced Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI) and has aggressively attacked MNLA elements.
Last week, after the fall of Konna to Al-Qaeda-aligned forces pushing southward toward the capital, Bamako, the government sent an urgent plea to France for help. French President François Hollande responded January 11 with a bombing campaign to stop the Al-Qaeda advance, and ECOWAS planned to send African ground forces to assist. French troops on the ground have encountered more formidable Islamist resistance than expected, and on January 15, despite the aerial bombardments, Islamists still managed to take and hold more territory.
What does the future hold?
Although the CIA World Factbook calls landlocked Mali among the 25 poorest countries in the world, the country is rich in natural resources such as gold, oil, and uranium. It has been suggested that France's military intervention in Mali is as much about protecting its economic interests as tending to Mali's security concerns. The United States, which has generally approved of France's actions, is supplying intelligence to assist the French, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has not ruled out American aircraft landing in Mali to provide logistical support.
The most troublesome question is how France will decide its endpoint in its former colony. François Hollande has stated that the goal of the intervention is to ensure that "Mali is safe, has legitimate authorities [and] an electoral process, and [that] there are no more terrorists threatening its territory." That is a tall order. The northern part of Mali is an immense, forbidding, Texas-sized area of desert and jagged mountains in which rebels and Islamists can hide, regroup, and launch counterattacks. The scenario may spell a protracted engagement for France. Bamako may be requesting help now, but in months or even years to come, who is to say that the sight of French troops marching through Malian towns will not lose its appeal?
The Institute for Policy Studies' Emira Woods has expressed concern that France has intervened unilaterally in Mali rather than invoking the collective resolve of the international community. There are also concerns about retaliation against Europeans and Americans, such as the Islamist attack on a natural gas complex in Algeria on January 16, leading to a hostage crisis in which dozens of people have been killed.
Such early, alarming developments strongly indicate that the solution in Mali must be a multi-pronged approach involving more than just military measures. The challenge ahead is complex and treacherous. One longs for the heyday of ancient Timbuktu, when African scholars pored studiously over learned manuscripts in quiet libraries.
Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Kwei Quartey was born in Ghana and raised by an African American mother and a Ghanaian father, both of whom were university lecturers. He lives in Pasadena, California where he runs a wound care clinic and is the lead physician at an urgent care center. He is the author of two novels, Wife of the Gods and Children of the Street, with Murder at Cape Three Points due out this year.