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After French intervention in Mali against Islamist rebels, now what?

The French military intervention in Mali against Islamist rebels does not need to be another Afghanistan. Containing rather than defeating Mali's violent jihadists should be the goal.

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French soldiers leave an air base in Bamako, Mali, as they battle an Islamist alliance of al Qaeda's northern African wing called AQIM and home-grown militants such as Ansar Dine.

Reuters

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From afar, France’s military operations in Mali may look as if they’re another attempt by a European power to save a former African colony from a rebel force and restore a democracy.

Only this time it is different.

The rebels in northern Mali are militant jihadists allied with Al Qaeda. And they control a territory about the size of Afghanistan that could become a haven for training global terrorists.

Last week, when the rebels suddenly advanced toward Mali’s capital, France sent in fighter jets and troops with support from the United States, Britain, and other NATO allies.

Now the question is whether the two rebel groups – Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – should be defeated or simply contained.

The choice isn’t easy. But after all of the West’s struggles with Al Qaeda or its affiliates in Afghanistan, Yemen, and elsewhere, the best option for now should be containment.

This is not only because of war fatigue and budget woes in the West. Ever since 9/11, the actions of violent Islamists have turned off most Muslims. The Al Qaeda vision of a harsh theocracy that includes suppression of women and cruel punishment for social misdeeds has sown the seeds of its own destruction.

Violent jihadism, just like Soviet communism, can implode when contained. It relies on an ideology not grounded in humanity’s hope for freedom and individual rights.

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