Editorial: Mali's Islamists are too dangerous to be ignored

Military involvement in foreign conflicts can never be undertaken lightly. But with Islamist extremists in Mali threatening to overrun the country, destabilise the region, and hand a vast area of the Sahel to al-Qa'ida and their like, the dangers of ignoring the West African country's plea for help were too great to be ignored. The French President's swift action is, then – reluctantly – to be welcomed.

Mali's troubles began a year ago. A string of defeats by Tuareg separatists – aided by Islamist fighters returning home from post-Gaddafi Libya – prompted a military coup and, in the confusion that followed, the army withdrew from the vast deserts of the north. With the secular Tuaregs then swiftly pushed aside by their former allies, extremist militants took control of a swathe of territory as big as France.

The result has been terrible suffering. Three Islamist groups are now active in northern Mali – Ansar Dine, al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb, and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa – terrorising local people, destroying cultural treasures, and enforcing the amputations and public whippings prescribed by sharia law. The International Criminal Court is investigating allegations of war crimes including rapes and executions. But although the UN finally approved a plan to deploy African troops to the country in December, military assistance for the beleaguered government in Bamako was not expected until September.

Last week, everything changed. A rebel victory at the town of Konna opened the way to Mopti, Mali's second city, and thus to the whole of the south. France's decision to send war planes to help re-take Konna and to send troops to protect Bamako was the only sensible response. And although François Hollande is open to charges of precipitousness, he was right that there was no time to waste. With Mopti lost, it might have proved impossible to stop Mali's collapse.

Britain's offer of assistance in the form of two C-17 transport aircraft is also to be supported. In part, such support reflects the reality of our much-vaunted defence partnership with France. But there is also an element of moral obligation here. With Mali's Islamists strengthened by an influx of mercenary fighters from Libya – in which our involvement was pivotal – it is incumbent upon us, as well as France, to help deal with the consequences. The Prime Minister's promise of "no boots on the ground" must be adhered to, however, regardless of how the conflict plays out.

Here the matter becomes less straightforward. The French Foreign Minister yesterday stressed that the intervention would last a "couple of weeks" only. It is difficult to be so sure, however. So far, progress has been anything but smooth, with militants gaining ground in at least one part of the country yesterday. The risk of military stalemate, of civilian casualties, and of retaliatory terrorist attacks in France (or elsewhere in Europe) are all too real.

Given such dangers, suggestions that Mr Hollande's first foray into foreign policy is simply to distract attention from his woeful poll ratings are hardly credible. The near-unilateral rush to Bamako's aid also sits uncomfortably with his promise to cut paternalistic ties with former French colonies. The sooner, therefore, that France is backed – politically – by the UN and – militarily – by the Economic Community of West African States, the better.

For all the difficulties of intervention in Mali, the alternatives are worse. There are many lessons to be learned from Afghanistan; the perils of a failed state providing a haven for global terrorism is one of them.