01/15/2013 11:31 am ET Updated Mar 17, 2013

Five Pick-Ups and a War

In Mali about three months ago, a dusty Toyota pick-up truck carrying 17 Islamic preachers lurched to a stop at an army roadblock outside the town of Diabaly, just across the border from Mauritania. In the dusk, soldiers swarmed around the truck, then opened fire with automatic weapons. Sixteen of the preachers were killed that night, Sept. 8, the 17th badly wounded.

Retaliation took some time. But early this week, five pick-ups carrying rebel fighters careened into Diabaly. Soldiers manning the garrison there, an outpost in what had been considered government-held territory, fled.

All this might have gone unnoticed in Western capitals were it not for a rising panic that Mali, an impoverished expanse of Saharan desert and an ancient seat of Islamic learning and culture, was becoming the latest front in the War on Terror. Islamist rebels had taken over much of the northern half of Mali; having anti-government rebels occupying a town in government territory was not acceptable.

Last night French fighter-bombers struck at the town repeatedly. The rebels, French President Francois Hollande said dismissively, were not occupying the town, but "hiding inside it to protect themselves." The air strikes had "achieved their objective." No word, of course, on civilian casualties.

As a former war correspondent in Africa, all this sounded grimly familiar to me: local grievances bursting into violence, heated discussions in distant halls of power, the dispatch of gallant troops, and an escalation to some unhappy rag-end conclusion.

Not quite up to Evelyn Waugh's classic tale of African misadventure, Scoop. But close.