The destruction of ancient Muslim shrines in Timbuktu since July has mirrored the dynamiting of the giant Buddha statues Bamiyan in 2001. Both senseless acts were carried out by militants cloaked in an extremist version of Islam - the Taliban in Afghanistan and Ansar Dine in Mali. Both also were omens that such groups will export terrorist acts abroad if allowed to flourish in lawless areas.
In Afghanistan, it was the Taliban, who will probably reclaim at least part of their power following 12 years of an aimless war. In northern Mali, the disintegration of state control was much more recent, and should still be reversible. But whereas most of the Taliban have denounced Al Qaeda, northern Mali is in the grip of groups that claim links to its offshoot in the Maghreb.
French ground forces engaged militants for the first time yesterday in the town of Diabaly, which is only about 350 kilometres from Mali's capital Bamako. The militants' march southward in recent days under French aerial bombardment has been a warning of their staying power. Other European states promised support yesterday, as a West African force led by Nigeria was supposed to begin arriving.
Paris clearly believes that urgent military action is necessary to check the militants' consolidation of power. Another commitment, however, was President Francois Hollande's promise, delivered in Dubai on Tuesday, that the French involvement will be brief. France is venturing into its old colonial stamping ground, and overstaying its welcome could easily generate the same kind of backlash that has hit US forces in Afghanistan. In that context, the West African force has more legitimacy, although other interventions on the continent have shown that purely military solutions are never permanent.
Critics of the French intervention are right, in part: negotiations are necessary for any real solution. But they are wrong about who needs to be talking. The Al Qaeda-related group Ansar Dine, which is fronting this march south, is not the right partner with which to negotiate. Mali's crisis began last year with a rebellion in the north by Tuareg and other ethnic groups - subsequently pushed aside by hardline Islamists - and a coup in Bamako. Putting the pieces back together again will not be easy, and will require steady diplomatic pressure in the background.
In the meantime, Ansar Dine and its dangerous allies cannot be allowed to recruit in the north, much less push to the south. All of Mali's neighbours - and indeed France, now explicitly threatened with terrorism - know that their threat will continue to spread.