The mess in Mali

French President Francois Hollande has sent French forces to stop an Islamic insurgency from taking over the West African nation of Mali. It is a bold step for Mr. Hollande, who faces rising discontent at home as well as fear that the intervention could become a quagmire.

Blowback has already become evident in the attempted takeover of an Algerian natural gas facility by Islamic sympathizers. Mr. Hollande must have thought that the danger of inaction was more compelling and that failure to stop the insurgents could produce another Afghanistan, a base for radical forces, this time in Africa.

While world attention has focused on the northern-most states of Africa as they struggle with the forces unleashed by the Arab Spring, politics to the south has been equally confused.

In Mali, a sprawling landlocked state where about half the population lives on less than ¥100 a day, an Islamic insurgency linked to al-Qaida has been making steady gains. Less than a year ago, those rebels took over the northern half of the country. That is a largely unpopulated area; about 90 percent of Malians live in the south. Since then, the rebels have moved steadily south and in recent weeks they appeared set to march on the capital, Bamako.

That threat prompted Mr. Hollande to send his military to assist the Malian government. Last week, some 650 French soldiers, backed by air support, fought with the Malian Army to repulse the rebels and retake the town of Diabaly, about 400 km from Bamako. Another 2,000 French troops were scheduled to be dispatched to begin rolling back the rebels and, more importantly, help to build up the Malian Army so that it can defend the country on its own.

While the intervention was greeted with relief among much of the international community, the rebels and their supporters were outraged. A group of sympathizers responded by seizing a natural gas field in Ain Amenas in southern Algeria, which borders Mali, and taking hundreds of hostages, including a number of foreigners who work at the facility.

Qatiba, or the “Signed in Blood Battalion,” as they call themselves, was protesting the Algerian government’s decision to allow French warplanes to use Algerian airspace to attack the Malian rebels.

Qatida picked the wrong enemy. The Algerian government has long maintained a harsh posture toward Islamists; the military overthrew an election held in 1991 when Islamic forces prevailed.

Because of its experience fighting a civil war against Islamists in the 1990s, the Algerian government has insisted that it will not negotiate with terrorists. In addition, the seized gas facility was in an isolated location. The only thing preventing a massive strike against the terrorists was international outcry from the foreign hostages’ governments. Algerian special forces on Saturday stormed the natural gas facility to strike the hostage takers.

Reportedly, nearly 800 hostages, including some 100 foreigners, were freed in the raid on the plant, although 37 hostages — including at least seven Japanese — were reported to have been killed along with 29 of the attackers.

The Saharan region of Africa is increasingly lawless, with jihadi forces gathering and strengthening in a virtual no-man’s land. Fighters and weapons from Libya and other battlefields such as Afghanistan and Iraq have flooded the area. They get money from kidnapping foreigners and protecting drug traffickers.

There is a very real fear that an insurgent victory in Mali could lead to another militant Islamic state and sanctuary for radical forces to launch attacks on “enemies of Islam,” especially in Europe.

The problem is that, as in Afghanistan, the Malian government is weak and divided. While the public in the south has little if any sympathy for the insurgents, they have little confidence in their own government. A military coup a year ago undermined the legitimacy of the government in Bamako and divided the army. Mr. Hollande’s intervention risks bogging down if the Malians cannot unite to fight off this threat.

The proper approach would have the French scale back their presence as African forces step up. If not Malian, then those of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a 15-country group led by Nigeria, will do.

Regional organizations have the highest stake in these situations and are best suited to intervene. Nigeria has already dispatched nearly 200 troops and has promised several hundred more. A pan-African force would be even better.

At the same time, more must be done to address the grievances of the Tuareg, nomads in Mali’s north who have made common cause with the Islamists because of their mistreatment by the government in Bamako.

The Islamists reportedly number just 2,000; depriving them of their local support would further isolate a small group that seeks to impose its harsh version of Islam on the entire country. As always, outside forces like Mr. Hollande’s can help, but the real work must be done by the Malians themselves.