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