'As Usual' (How Europe Will Not Be in Timbuktu)

The European defense is a never-ending and frustrating story. France is acting almost alone in the current military operation in Mali, after receiving unanimous, but very rhetorical, support from Europe. When he recently explained the intervention to the Africans, President Hollande admitted that France was acting alone because of the "possibility of hunting down terrorists." This European lack of mobilization -- as usual -- is regrettable. It is just the latest example of how the old continent desperately wants to remain out of history and uninvolved in conflicts. This time, no warmongering in Northern Europe, just unanimous voiced support for intervention; this is a free cost.

Germany is focused on the economy and the Euro crisis primarily; though the country is starting to engage in arms trade, its military involvement is non-existent. Brussels (EU) cannot do anything: its Sahel regional initiative did not go very far, especially when security matters. The Netherlands and Denmark have nothing to say, nor have either country ever shown security interest for Africa anyway. Spain is broke. Italy is facing elections. At the end, and again as usual, the only really supportive countries of France's intervention are the U.S. and the UK -- the core pillars of the transatlantic alliance.

But history is happening in Mali right now. Like Libya, and possibly more than Libya, Mali could be an excellent opportunity for Europe -- this conflict is a "moral" one (though any conflict brings humanitarian challenges). Intervention is politically correct, with goals for humanitarian aid; democratic and state reform in the long run; even cultural preservation. Timbuktu monuments need to be preserved and protected. So do the local populations. Read the lips of the Malians: vocal support is not enough. But the reality on the ground shows that nobody can be 100 percent safe, and therefore, no one person or one government can remain unconcerned about what is happening in Mali. Just look at how Al Qaida in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is under extreme pressure and escalated its activity with the massive hostage-taking of westerners in Algeria.

Current operations are the de-facto recognition of failed negotiations that were conducted by Burkina Faso and Algeria (though it should be noted that these countries have direct links with Tuareg elements and some jihadi networks). However, the contribution of Algiers is noteworthy -- a significant number of arrests of terrorists have occurred in these last few months in Algeria. Likewise, opening its airspace to French planes is, symbolically, an important Algerian step.

One of the challenges of the current French operation is to stop this vicious circle between hostage-takings and ransom requests as AQIM operates in the safe-haven of its North-Mali sanctuary. It is also, somehow, a way to rectify the unwilling consequences of the Libyan conflict: the return to Mali of many Tuareg militants formerly employed by Gaddafi and of the worrying dissemination of a significant influx of weapons in the whole region.

At this stage, for AQIM, with or without its remaining radical allies, the next few weeks and months seem to be the moment of truth. By pulling out the cities they previously controlled, this organization has explicitly admitted its lack of skill and training in urban warfare and, as consequence, renounced all the benefits that cities provide, especially the most important one -- Timbuktu.

In the meanwhile, dices are rolling to decide if jihadism, this bloody ideology, will or will not spread in Sahel. The Europeans are wrong in doing nothing. The EU will do business as usual: it will produce statements and papers about the gender of angels (and money, true), while the member states will be persistent in their so-called post-modern moral superiority and non-consistent support.

The short-term French involvement will provide some answers to sensitive issues for the future of Mali as a cohesive society and legitimate state. Let's also hope that a fair political division of labor with the Tuareg minority will prevail.

This should be a wake-up call for Europe; Mali deserves it.