Life in Timbuktu is changing quickly. Five weeks ago, this ancient city in northern Mali fell to Taureg rebels who sought an independent homeland. They were helped by at least one al Qaeda-linked Islamist group. Today, the Islamists rule the city alone.
“The ‘bearded men’ are the new masters of the Azawad region. The MNLA [Taureg rebel group] are in second place,” said a former tourism worker.
Fighters linked to Ansar Dine, an Islamist group that seeks to install Sharia law across Mali, destroyed the tomb of one of Timbuktu’s revered saints late last week. Some fundamentalist Muslims believe the reverence of saints and tombs is idolatrous: “What you are doing is haram! (forbidden). Ask God directly rather than the dead,” one of the fighters shouted at worshippers who were on their way to pray. “They attacked the grave, broke doors, windows and wooden gates that protect it. They brought it outside and burn it,” a local politician told Reuters. “This tomb is sacred, it is too difficult to bear.” Sixteen of Timbuktu’s 333 tombs are UNESCO World Heritage sites, as is the city itself.
Meanwhile, the junta that took power in southern Mali is hunting “mercenaries” and soldiers loyal to the ousted president, Amadou Toumani Toure. Three days of continuous fighting swept Bamako, the capital, last week. Twenty-seven people were reported killed.
The crisis in Mali was sparked when well-equipped soldiers who had fought for Qaddafi in Libya invaded northern Mali, routing government troops and establishing a foothold in the northern deserts. They began overrunning towns, then cities like Timbuktu. Disgruntled Malian soldiers overthrew the government in Bamako, one of Africa’s oldest democracies, saying the government was unable to fight the Taureg rebels. Now much of Mali — perhaps all of it — is lawless territory. Libya too: As Robert Worth, a NYT journalist, wrote recently in a fascinating piece on Libya’s militias,
Libya has no army. It has no government. These things exist on paper, but in practice, Libya has yet to recover from the long maelstrom of Qaddafi’s rule. The country’s oil is being pumped again, but there are still no lawmakers, no provincial governors, no unions and almost no police…
What Libya does have is militias, more than 60 of them, manned by rebels who had little or no military or police training when the revolution broke out less than 15 months ago. They prefer to be called katibas, or brigades, and their members are universally known as thuwar, or revolutionaries. Each brigade exercises unfettered authority over its turf, with “revolutionary legitimacy” as its only warrant.
NATO didn’t plan to destroy democracy in Mali while creating a wide swathe of lawless territory in North Africa, but sometimes your intentions don’t matter. As a result of NATO’s Libya intervention, dangerous and destructive forces have been unleashed; old fights have been reinvigorated. Civilians — and world heritage sites — are at risk. Islamist terrorists are finding new ungoverned spaces to call home. Libya’s weapons are missing, and it doesn’t look as if the people who have gotten them are particularly trustworthy or nice.
Via Meadia is glad the press doesn’t hate Obama as much as it hated Bush; otherwise the papers would be full every day with stories about the unintended, tragic consequences of the humanitarian intervention gone awry in Libya and about the policy failures and miscalculations that landed us in this mess. There would be eloquent lamentations and beautifully choreographed hand wringings by our professional moralists and the custodians of the collective conscience at our better universities and more prestigious magazines. There would be telling comparisons of the destruction of the tombs in Timbuktu with the looting of the Baghdad museums. There would be impassioned denunciations of the hubris that led the ideological zealots to promote the holy war, and scathing, mocking reminders of the promises they made about how nice things would be if we took their advice.
As it is, we are just doing our best to ignore the rubble and move on, while many of the same people who pushed the Libya intervention try to gin up a new war in Syria. At least if we make a mess in Syria there is a strong national interest case for the intervention, and a small war in Syria might well reduce the risk of much uglier and nastier war with Iran. Via Meadia is still scratching its head wondering what exactly we gained that was worth the humanitarian catastrophes and bloodbaths the Libyan war unleashed.