Mali’s civilian government struggled with corruption, desertification, impoverishment, and the inability to lure investment. …

Concerns over political Islam in Mali’s north are also not new: expert commentators as well as members of Congress such as Jane Harman, from her position on the House intelligence committee, were warning about it six years ago. …

We will have weeks, if not months, to talk about what went wrong militarily in the last year, why US planners and advisers failed to anticipate and prepare for either the Islamist spillover from Libya, or the coup. Perhaps some will wonder whether, if the US hadn’t contracted all its military assistance to outside advisers, while its active-duty advisers were overstretched in Iraq and Afghanistan, the results would have been better.

But even that conversation misses the point. Mali’s civilian government, and its western supporters, had a decade to build institutions, civilian and military, that could counter both the appeal and the military might of the extremists. That task was hard enough, perhaps impossible. But it could have been tried much harder without loss of life, and without unraveling an entire region. It should have been tried harder for the dignity of the human beings involved; it could have been tried harder as effective counterterrorism, as well.