The Malian Front: France Wins First Round of the War, but Now What?

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ISSOUF SANOGO / AFP / Getty Images

Malian youth watch French soldiers drive down a road in Niono on Jan. 20, 2013

Three days after France sent jets screeching over the white skies of West Africa, a trail of over 50 Islamist-packed vehicles stormed south out of the desert, bypassing the Malian military post at the village of Dogofry and churning off the road into the shrubby bush. The group then split; some continued south, where they looped around to assault a Malian army base from the rear. The others took off on foot, around a swamp, to flank the Malians in battle. The Malian soldiers fought, then fled. Oumar Traore, like most villagers of Diabaly, scurried through the lush green fields to hide. For the next four days and nights, planes and helicopter blades whirred above, as automatic bursts fired back. And then: silence. Traore waited for several hours, then ventured out. The bearded men from the desert had left almost as suddenly as they had swooped in, leaving only charred souvenirs behind. “The bombing was too intense,” Traore said. “There were burnt trucks all around my neighborhood.”

France won Round 1 of its new war in Africa but not as smoothly as its military planners might have hoped. By the time it had successfully stopped the Islamist advance southward that prompted its intervention earlier this month, the hodgepodge of overlapping Islamist militias had dealt the French a quick lesson: they plan on fighting back.

(MORE:  When Did France Become So Bellicose?)

The rebels finally retreated because they had no answer to the pummeling from the air. “The French would wait until the rebels had to move, then they’d hit them while running,” said Traore. The rebels tried everything to try to evade the air assault: hiding under trees, camouflaging trucks with mud and branches. They even broke into civilian homes, sometimes knocking down walls, to park their mounted guns in places the French would not bomb. Eventually, they pulled out.

But, the rebels also exposed a gaping chink in France’s armament: Paris still has no solution for the ground war. The first phase of France’s war in Mali took place in the country’s riverine center. Control a bridge here, a few checkpoints there, and you can secure a site. Not so in the desert, the rebels’ home turf, where France will have to press the fight next. The French need fighters, and the Malian army is not up to the task. Even after the rebels fled Diabaly, the Malian army refused to re-enter for over 24 hours and even then would not spend the night. There was no ground assault on the rebels’ position, even with the French airpower on their side. But so far, France hasn’t shown willingness to do the dirty work either. With the exception of French special forces deployed to assist the air assaults from the ground, the gathering swarm of French troops, now numbering over 2,000 in Mali, stayed south of the Malian lines.

French insistence on African troops leading the pack has resurrected the U.N.’s original intervention plan: a cobbled-together West African force that does not even exist yet. The U.N. has said such a force would take until September to be deployable, but now their troops are rolling piecemeal into Bamako, Mali’s capital, with new urgency but still without a defined command structure or size.

(MORE: In Mali’s Shadow: A Short History of French Military Mishaps in Africa)

One option is for France to secure central and southern Mali and wait the weeks or, more likely, months until the African force is theoretically ready to go. The problem is that time is not on France’s side. The Islamists have ruled northern Mali since last spring, and every passing month grants the rebels’ more time to bolster their one glaring area of weakness: local support, or rather the lack of it. So far, the French intervention is wildly popular in Mali. Malians don’t appreciate the ultraconservative lectures on Islam: 90% of the country is Muslim, and Timbuktu, seized by Islamists earlier this year, was once the center of Islamic scholarship in the Muslim world, and they blame the rebels for their nation’s precipitous collapse.

But the Islamists are working hard to improve their reputation, especially with the youth. “They offered us money, candy. They told us we could join them. They were not abusive, they were trying to be nice,” said Fousseni Traore, a 19-year-old from Diabaly. Some in Diabaly joined the insurgents during the brief occupation. Northern Mali, ethnically and culturally, is even riper recruiting ground.

(PHOTOS: War in Mali: France and African Allies Take on Islamist Militants)

More time also means more room to regroup and prepare for the coming assault, and U.S. officials admit the Islamist coalition, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, already had too much of it. “One of the hallmarks of AQIM is that they are generally quite well trained and quite effective, particularly if there’s no counterpressure on them, which there hadn’t been until the French launched their military action,” said State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland about the rebels’ counterstrike. To speed things up, France could try a hybrid approach by putting together a mix of Nigerian and Chadian troops, the most battle-hardened of the contributing countries, to forge ahead by its side as the rest of the African troops are readied and trained.

France deserves the world’s thanks for stepping in when and where no one else, the U.S. included, would. A collapsed Mali into the hands of Taliban-style hoodlums would have established a sinkhole of terrorism accessible from almost any corner of north, west and central Africa. American doubts that the crisis in Mali had direct national-security implications were profoundly shortsighted: as the Algerian hostage situation and the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi showed, Mali’s crisis already extends far past its borders. If no one had stopped the Islamists from taking all of Mali, the resulting calamity for the wider region would have been exponentially grimmer. The moral bravado of the French mission, however, will be of limited assistance on the battlefield as the conflict grinds on. As the French eye Mali’s north, there’s still a lot of sand to sift through.

MORE: Why Afghan Ghosts Haunt France’s Mali Invasion

8 comments
MichaelvanderKuijl
MichaelvanderKuijl

The war in Mali is far from over, plus there's plenty of civil unrest in the rest of the world.

TizzAlNabi
TizzAlNabi

It's amazing to see the press coverage of this as opposed to Israel's confrontation with the Jihadi's in Gaza. France sends troops thousands of miles, bombs towns and kills an unknown number of civilians and is applauded for stopping terrorism. Israel fights a recognized terrorist group (Hamas) that regularly shoots missiles into Israel, and is condemned by the world's press.

cp4abOlishm3nt
cp4abOlishm3nt

The Government of Mali overall is weak. A few months ago there was a coup. To re-organize Malian Governmental functions first will be a tremendous task and more so for the military to trust the Government as well. Once this is stabilize, the Government has to coordinate and laterally bring to rule the Northern towns in the Northern Mali. With huge swath of land up North and limited resources, this would be a tremendous task and they need the confidence of security elements. The French and the various African UN peacekeeping force will only have short security stints and that depends on monetary resources as well to fund these peacekeeping functions. In order to truly stabilize the region in the long run, the Americans and the EU nations have to take turns to drone the region and take down delinquent remnants, its not a popular formula but it did bring success in other parts of the world like Yemen and Pakistan. Something done is better than nothing. 

kallsonesk
kallsonesk

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john_xvra
john_xvra

Dealing with terrorists is a long and lengthy process.  The current tactics were poor. The Mali people suffered under the UN rules that prevent the population from owning guns.  What warriors they had were ill armed.  Yes, like Mexico the people if given the chance to buy weapons have a better stake than some other African troops.  It takes time for deprived and frightened people to find their way.

Frawleyz
Frawleyz

"France deserves the world’s thanks for stepping in when and where no one else..."  Why?  "A collapsed Mali into the hands of Taliban-style hoodlums..."  that sounds like a lot like the War on Terror, logic of the former US administration.  Why wasn't liberating people from tyranny not acceptable then, but is acceptable now? "American doubts that the crisis here had direct national security implications were profoundly short-sighted..." Some would argue that supporting dictators over democracies, for the sake of stability, is short sighted as well, others would argue the opposite look at Libya, that was another one of those moral imperatives, now a safe haven for terrorist, and supplier of arms to northern Africa.  What was ever wrong with promoting and fighting for democracy, and the dream of self governance?  The world, or at least the free world should be outraged and united behind a front to oppose the expansion of tyranny in the Middle East, but instead we are divide along our national interests and security concerns, producing Libya, and thus the need for strong leadership, but unfortunately the "leader" of the free world wants to lead from behind.

 While I couldn't agree more, with Frances intervention into Mali, I think the world needs to wake up and decide what it is going to do with about this problem,  because this piecemeal approach is only going to work against us.  I fear France is going to learn a similar lesson the US did, and now look at how we approach the issue, we won't call a murdering fundamental Islamist extremist a terrorist.  

I expect, that we will see more of these conflicts emerge not less, as the world becomes increasingly divided and embittered by the lack of victory, we are fighting a war of ideas made manifest, in the form of fundamental Islamic extremism (aka Jihad).

FredFlintsone
FredFlintsone

How many more rounds we talking about here? Mission accomplished was a long time ago