Mali’s War: After Surging Into the Islamist-Held North, Will France Retreat?

Franco-Malian offensive frees Timbuktu as the last major Mali town held by jihadi militias, but French moves handing over campaign against al-Qaeda allies in Mali to African forces raise doubts about future success.

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Residents welcome Malian soldiers as they enter the historic city of Timbuktu, which was occupied for 10 months by Islamists who imposed a harsh form of Shari'a, Jan. 28, 2013.

The surprisingly rapid advance by French-backed Malian troops to reclaim major towns held by jihadi militants in northern Mali appears to signal the end of Paris’ lead role in the conflict. Yet even as French leaders cheered the news of Timbuktu’s returning to Franco-Malian control on Jan. 28, questions remain about whether France can really step back into a secondary role and nudge African troops to lead the battle against Islamist fighters in the vast northern part of Mali.

“[African soldiers] will go into the northern area, which we know is the most difficult because the terrorists are hidden there and can still lead operations that are extremely dangerous for neighboring countries and for Mali,” French President François Hollande said during a Monday-night press conference, adding that France’s presence in Mali would be as brief as possible. “Once the [territorial] integrity of Mali is restored, the mission of French forces will be returning to their bases.”

(MORE: The Crisis in Mali: Will French Air Strikes Stop the Islamist Advance?)

How France, Mali and the rest of Africa will get to that happy ending is far easier said than done — especially with Paris seeking to downscale its role. In responding to the news of Timbuktu, Hollande said recent combat victories, while still incomplete, meant “we are winning in Mali.” Yet that swift progress was then used by Hollande to pledge that for the remainder of the anti-Islamist operation, it will be “Africans, as I have indicated before, who will see to it that Mali’s territorial integrity is restored.”

The problem with that view is that it’s largely based on the same European–African Union plan that called for modestly trained and armed African forces to square off with battle-hardened jihadi fighters in difficult terrain — a let-Africa-fend-for-itself strategy that American officials previously called “crap.” And even if the 5,000 to 8,000 regional troops anticipated for the mission can be quickly deployed, it’s hard to see how France will be able to cease its heavy air support to assist advancing ground troops, especially given how instrumental aerial strikes were in the success of the Mali intervention after Hollande announced it on Jan. 11.

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

“Our air power has been pounding [Islamist] fighters, their transportation, fuel depots and other logistical facilities incredibly hard,” says a French diplomat who is following the Mali operation closely. “The treatment they got from Malian and French soldiers hasn’t been any kinder. The speed of our advance may have surprised some people — perhaps including the Islamists — but [it] was a logical consequence of the combat assets that went into it.” Yet it’s not going to continue if Paris swaps that heavy engagement for participation in a European contingent of about 450 soldiers deployed to train new soldiers for Mali’s army. Such training and logistical support would mark a radical shrinking of France’s involvement in Mali.

(MORE: Mali’s Crisis: Is the Plan for Western Intervention ‘Crap’?)

Hollande explained that the rapid deployment of French air power — and over 3,000 ground forces — to aid Malian troops was an unavoidable measure needed to prevent Islamists allied with North Africa–based al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) from advancing to the capital, Bamako, and thereby collapsing the entire nation into a haven for terrorists and roguish militant outfits. But with those jihadi fighters now chased back into northern Mali, French officials say the logic of the initial plan calling on Africans to oversee stability and security for their own continent must be applied.

“The urgency of preventing Bamako and southern Mali falling to Islamist power forced a serious change of program simply to avoid total catastrophe,” the French diplomat explains. “Now that the immediate crisis has been addressed, we’re essentially returning to original plans, with African troops assuming the lead role until the Malian army is ready to take over for good.”

It’s a long way to that goal. For starters, with the number of core AQIM-linked fighters estimated at 3,000, the highly mobile and desert-savvy enemy may prove more difficult to track down and eliminate in the vast reaches of northern Mali than when they were overextended trying to hold towns during their recent southern surge. Meanwhile, some observers fear that the jihadi fast-fade before heavy French air power may in part be a ruse to lure advancing military forces into desert settings — or even ambushes — more favorable to reconstituted Islamist battalions. The success of any continued operation in the north will also inevitably depend on the willingness and ability of Mali’s neighbors to seal borders and battle extremists when jihadi fighters seek refuge elsewhere in the Sahel. Yet until now, accepting responsibility for confronting Islamist militias has been a can each regional neighbor has sought to kick down the roads of others.

But that may be changing. According to French officials, the horrific terrorism attack at Algeria’s In Amenas gas plant this month has generated increased willingness from both regional nations and previously reticent Western countries to offer support in the anti-Islamist battle that’s convulsing Mali. That strike in Algeria, they say, was another lesson that what happens in Mali will have consequences far beyond.

“The only positive aspect of the Algerian attack was it served as a very timely reminder that this is a danger threatening us all and that it must be battled where it’s found by us all,” says a French counterterrorism official. “The effort in Mali has been viewed quite differently by everyone since the In Amenas strike. Most mutterings that ‘That doesn’t involve us’ have stopped.”

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