Timbuktu has been liberated and the French military (and their Malian partners) are triumphant.
Now comes the hard part.
No one doubted that the French military would be able to best the patchwork of Islamist militants in northern Mali, at least in a conventional sense. But victory on the battlefield will be comparatively easy compared to the long and difficult task of building up Malian institutions to the point where they can provide security on their own.
This is called securing the peace, or “post-conflict stabilization” and it is monumentally more challenging than war fighting.
The most immediate concern is over the capacity of the Malian state to provide basic security and services to people in recently liberated northern Mali. So far, the signs are not that great. Malian forces have already been accused of extra-judicial killings and of standing aside as ethnic violence erupts in recently liberated Timbuktu.
The role of the UN in Mali is still being debated by the Security Council, but we can be sure that the UN will be targeted if it is given a big post-conflict responsibilities; the deadliest attacks against the UN in the past 9 years have come from religiously motivated terrorists, including those in West Africa. Whatever force remains in Mali to secure the peace–be that African troops, the Malian army, or the French — will also be the targets of a terrorism campaign.
And then there are the underlying issues that sparked this conflagration in the first place: the legitimate political grievances of ethnic Tuaregs in the north and schismatic politics in Bamako that is still heavily influenced by putchist junior miltiary officers. Those issues are both still sources of instability, despite the rebels’ defeat on the battlefield.
These were all foreseeable concerns–and, infact, the international community did foresee them! The UN resolution authorizing international intervention was intended to put a break on the intervention until some of these underlying problems were addressed. Alas, the intervention occurred (for better or worse) on a much more accelerated pace than expected.
Now, we are left with a territory with destroyed institutions, but a government and military that is unable to fill the void. We have seen this movie before and it does not end well. The good news, such as it is, is that the international community is paying attention to these questions and concerns. African countries are willing to put their troops in harms way to keep the peace; and western countries are sending in trainers to prop up a broken Malian army.
Still, it’s not clear that this will be enough to stave off an insurgency that will be doing its utmost to make sure that northern Mali is chaotic and impossible to govern.