The operation began suddenly 10 days ago, when French planes arrived in central Mali to launch airstrikes against an insurgency based in the north of the country. Since then, ground combat has been initiated and some of the Islamist rebels have called for a global jihad against Western forces.
African troops from nearby nations have rolled in to beef up Malian defenses, but France remains the clear leader in this conflict. The question -- especially given the past decade of drawn-out warfare between Western troops and other Islamist militants in Iraq and Afghanistan -- is just how committed Paris will be as this new conflict develops.
“What we saw first was a sort of knee-jerk reaction,” says Michael Shurkin, a former intelligence worker who is now a political scientist at the Rand Corporation in Washington D.C.
“Now that French troops are on the ground, the immediate sense of emergency has dissipated. If the French are careful and take the time to learn about the people they’re dealing with, I think they can pull this off. But if they brashly move around like a bull in a china shop, the results could be really disastrous.”
Back and Forth
France’s surprise intervention came just after the Malian insurgents made an unprecedented push southward, seizing the central town of Konna and sparking fears about an eventual takeover of the southern capital city of Bamako.
When President Francois Hollande announced the operation on Jan. 11, he said it would “last as long as necessary.”
But on Jan. 14, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that the operation might go on for only “a matter of weeks.” Hollande noted the next day that “France has no intention of staying in Mali.”
The tone changed yet again on Jan. 16., when Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that “the combat continues, and it will be long, I imagine,” during an interview with France's RTL Radio.
And on Sunday, Le Drian laid out an ambitious plan for French troops. "The goal is the total reconquest of Mali," he said in a broadcast statement. "We will not leave any pockets" of insurgency.
That’s quite a bold proclamation, especially since France’s offensive seemed to sidestep the careful plans under way for an African-led intervention. Many assumed France had entered Mali only to contain the situation until regional forces could take up the mantle.
Apparently, that’s not the case.
“The latest declaration of the French minister of defense, saying that the goal of the intervention is the total reconquest of Mali, should be a cause of concern as it illustrates shifting policy goals,” says Gilles Yabi, the Senegal-based West Africa Project director for the International Crisis Group.
“[France's] previous statements identified three objectives: stop the offensive of the Islamist groups, help Mali recover its territorial integrity and pave the way for the deployment of the African force. It seems now that the goal of the French is to lead the effort to [re-conquer] the north, and not just assist the Malian forces.”
The duration of France’s involvement in Mali will depend on its ability to adapt to the realities on the ground in this complicated new arena.
Mali’s own army has so far proven incapable of defending itself against the insurgents’ advance, which began in December of 2011. That first wave of the rebel push was perpetrated by the Tuaregs, the desert nomads who have long sought to establish their own independent state but do not have an extreme Islamist agenda. Bamako’s failure in the face of that insurgency spurred a group of army members to storm the capital and take over the government, upending democracy in the formerly stable country. A transitional administration has since been installed, but it remains weak.
Militant Islamists, some of whom initially worked with the Tuaregs, took advantage of the upheaval during early 2012 and have set up a haven for themselves in the vast, sparsely-populated northern reaches of the country -- an area roughly the size of Texas.
But even those rebels are fractured. The various Islamist groups include Ansar Dine, which is most closely linked to the Tuaregs; the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJWA; and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, which has roots in Algeria and is an increasingly powerful regional branch of the broader al Qaeda network.
On top of that, ethnic divisions have a major effect on the dynamics of the insurgency.
“You have a population that considers itself ‘white’: the Arabs and the Tuaregs,” says Shurkin. “A lot of them don’t like black Africans. So when Bamako sends black soldiers to the north, [some take the opportunity to] exact revenge on Arab and Tuareg populations. In turn, ‘white’ Malians in the north feel the need to defend their communities against a perceived threat coming from black troops in cahoots with the French. It becomes racial, and then race and Islam also become intertwined.”
In that way, he adds, French and black troops’ advances in northern Mali “could radicalize the population, so they end up siding with the Islamists.”
For the time being, the intervention enjoys the support of most people in France as well as most native Malians, excluding rebels and coup leaders.
But public opinion could change as the conflict drags on, especially if the insurgents mount a strong resistance. They do have some significant advantages, despite France’s superiority in air power.
Having occupied northern Mali for a year, the insurgents are more familiar with the terrain than are the newly arrived French soldiers. The rebels are also capable of blending into Malian communities by posing as civilians. And most importantly, they are surprisingly well-armed. Many Islamists and Tuaregs fought as mercenaries for the doomed Moammar Gadhafi during the Libyan uprising of 2011; they lost the battle, but kept their weapons.
The length of France’s intervention will partly depend on the quality of those weapons, says Shurkin. “It’s going to be about how tough the enemy is -- whether they have things like man-portable air defense systems [such as shoulder-launched missiles that can shoot down aircraft] or anti-tank guided missiles.”
Thousands of weapons of exactly these types have indeed gone unaccounted for following the collapse of the Libyan regime.
Over the past several days, French forces have bombed as far north as Kidal, a town in the mountainous region bordering Algeria, and as far south as Diabali, which is about 320 miles northeast of Bamako.
French and Malian forces took control of Diabali on Monday, which has for a week been the insurgents’ southernmost post. But this victory is just one of many the French and Malian armies will have to secure in order to achieve their goal of total security -- and according to Yabi, that will won’t be easy.
“For now, the main cities of the north -- Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal -- are not about to fall under the control of the French and Malian forces,” he said.
“While a combination of airstrikes -- and experienced, well-equipped French forces advancing on the ground -- can lead to the control of the cities, it is clear that the enemies will not wait for them and have their [own] survival strategies. Neutralizing all pockets of resistance might be much more difficult than anticipated, and the mountainous region of Kidal further north will be particularly difficult to control.”
France appears increasingly willing to take the battle into those northern reaches of the country, and there the challenges will be great. After all, capturing towns is one thing; holding vast pieces of territory is quite another.
“Given these uncertainties,” says Yabi, “it seems to us essential that France clarify its military objectives, what role it expects the African forces to play and who will be in charge of keeping law and order in the ‘liberated’ places in the north.”