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Pure Onsense

Finding Timbuktu

Scott Zuke

(2/2013) In 1550 a diplomat and author by the name of Leo Africanus published a multi-volume description of Africa, drawn from his experiences as a young man touring the region of Northwest Africa known as the Maghreb. His travels took him to a thriving city where pure gold nuggets were used in place of currency, and the king was said to possess a gold ingot that weighed nearly half a ton. It was a powerful, but peaceful kingdom where education was greatly valued, leading to the establishment of ancient universities and a significant accumulation of handwritten books purchased from merchants passing through the city on camels. The city came to be known as Timbuktu, and so captured the imagination of European readers that over time it gained an aura of mystery and even legend.

Today many people have either never heard of Timbuktu, or believe that it is an imaginary place, like El Dorado. Dictionaries even define it as a metaphor for a "remote or extremely distant place." Perhaps this helps to explain some of the difficulties being felt today by the modern city's very real residents, as well as those in the rest of the country in which it is located.

Timbuktu sits near the geographical center of Mali, a nation nearly twice the size of Texas that most people would struggle to locate on a map. While not all that remote in modern times (it's just south of the more familiar North African countries like Morocco and Algeria and has several international airports), Mali has rarely drawn much attention from the modern international community because it is sparsely populated, has few natural resources of interest, and as a consequence is desperately poor. Up until last spring, it was noteworthy mainly for being one of a very few African nations with a legitimately elected democratic government. But its 20-year democratic establishment ended suddenly in March after a military coup overthrew the government only one month before a scheduled presidential election.

Since the coup, control of the country has become divided between the moderate, more economically developed government in the southern capitol of Bamako, and separatist Islamic tribes and other ethnic groups of the less populated northern section, which projects deep into the Sahara and includes Timbuktu, among other villages. The rebels began by demanding political autonomy, but extreme Islamic factions have become increasingly aggressive in asserting their harsh version of sharia law, from amputating the hands of thieves to stoning unwed couples for having children. Despite its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the rebels have sought to demolish ancient shrines in Timbuktu and sent its Christian residents fleeing for their lives.

Mali's crisis deepened for months but evoked little reaction from the global community until January when it was finally realized that the country had become a magnet for the growing international terrorist organization known as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Like Afghanistan, Mali met the conditions for a promising safe haven for terrorists: weak border control, an impoverished population to provide recruits, and an influx of readily available weapons, smuggled out of Libya after the fall of the Qaddafi regime. When AQIM and other fundamentalist groups arrived they allied themselves with the separatist rebels who had first seized control of the north, but they soon turned against them and seized the cities for themselves, exacerbating an already chaotic situation.

After the rebels recently made advances against cities in the southern part of the country, Bamako urgently requested intervention from the international community. France, which administered Mali as a colony until 1960 and has economic interests in the region, finally stepped in with air strikes and (at the moment) a modest number of boots on the ground to push back against rebel-held territory. Understandably, there are concerns about this decision dragging France into its own version of the U.S.'s war in Afghanistan, but growing worries over AQIM have nevertheless led more nations to lend assistance, mainly at the logistical level.

Why should Mali matter to us? Well, first of all, from a practical standpoint on international security, we ought to try to prevent the next Osama bin Laden from setting up camp in a city that most people believe not to exist.

It also serves as a new test for the doctrine known as Responsibility to Protect, or R2P, a United Nations policy of intervening to prevent mass atrocities when people's governments are unable (or unwilling) to do so themselves. The intervention in Libya against Qaddafi when he threatened to massacre rebel fighters in Benghazi was a clear, and seemingly successful application of R2P, but it has turned out to result in the wide dispersion and strengthening of AQIM and other terrorist organizations throughout North Africa. It has also met with political resistance from staunchly anti-interventionist nations, namely Russia and China, who felt uneasy about the Libya mission and have repeatedly blocked efforts to intervene in Syria ever since.

Finally, Mali's crisis provides strong evidence for the importance of continued international aid and development to national security. On a continent with porous borders, rampant corruption, and weak government institutions, the disruption of tyranny and terrorist cells in one country assures the swift spread of extremists to others nearby that are unable to repel them. Withdrawing resources from countries Americans don't care about is politically easy, but could have dire consequences in the long run. Development assistance is much cheaper and more constructive than the massive military operations that are needed to eradicate terrorist cells that become entrenched in underdeveloped safe haven countries. When budget-hawks call for zeroing out foreign aid, just think of the money and American lives lost in Afghanistan--itself possessing an almost mythic reputation as the "graveyard of empires"--over the past decade. Timbuktu may still seem to be cloaked in the mist of legend, and such remote and powerless states as Mali may simply seem too unimportant to pay attention to, but that's a fantasy the modern world can no longer afford.

Read other article by Scott Zuke