French forces have continued their seamless northwards progress through Mali, capturing Gao on the weekend and now poised to retake Timbuktu, one of the Middle Ages’ preeminent cultural centres. I wrote recently about the dilemmas posed by French intervention in their former African colonies. Nevertheless, the swift advance of French troops in their bid to oust the militant Islamist group Ansar Dine from North Mali has potentially served a crucial historical purpose.
A major centre of Islamic learning and academia between the 13th and 17th centuries, Timbuktu is (hopefully) home to vast collections of priceless tomes, treatises and creative arts, all painstakingly preserved in a series of vaulted libraries. Ansar Dine is known to have burnt many important works, some held at holy shrines, although the extent of the damage is unknown. It might just be possible that the French arrival has secured the future for some of the many books and manuscripts stored in underground vaults throughout the city.
Removing Ansar Dine from Mali’s cities is one thing; defeating the group across the vast desert landscapes and dry plains is another challenge altogether. As Al-Shabab has shown in Somalia, the tactical withdrawal of militant forces from the cities to the countryside has obvious benefits. Firstly, the poor rural areas often serve as potential recruiting grounds for militants, whose promise of food and glory is enough to convince many a starving person. Secondly, militant cells can move more fluidly in rural areas and are unconstrained by having to defend strategic checkpoints in towns and cities. Rather than engaging in the conventional warfare which has seen them defeated by trained armed forces in the past, Al-Shabab has resorted to more traditional terror tactics. Namely, indiscriminate bombings of civilian centres, hijackings and armed robbery.
It is very possible that Ansar Dine will pursue a similar policy, clear in the knowledge that armed confrontation with French forces can only result in their defeat. Given this, the security of Timbuktu and Mali’s other urban centres is far from assured. Whilst the country’s historical and cultural heritage has been offered succour by the French arrival, the days of fear and threat are still not over for those people dedicated to maintaining the riches of Timbuktu.
It is to be hoped that the French are in this for the long haul.