France should prepare for a protracted struggle if it endeavors to achieve its stated objective of “eradicating” terrorists in Mali, experts and U.S. officials told Reuters on Sunday, as Paris expanded its air campaign from the central region to the country’s Islamist-held north.
Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the intervention launched Friday prevented an Al Qaeda-led coalition of militants from capturing Mali’s capital city of Bamako. He also said French President Francois Hollande “is totally determined” to “eradicate” terrorists. Drian added that France is “at war against terrorism wherever it is found.”
France launched the campaign, according to Drian, to prevent the establishment of “a terrorist state at the doorstop of France and Europe.” Up until this point Paris has been reluctant to intervene because, according to French Foreign Minister Lauren Fabius, its colonial past in Mali “would complicate matters.” On Friday Hollande said the French operation would last “as long as necessary” because “at stake was the very existence of the Malian state.”
Despite these audacious goals, U.S. State Department official Reuben Brigety said the “massive undertaking” would “last months, not weeks” due to the difficult terrain and the vast expanse of territory involved. Gregory Mann, associate professor of history at Columbia University, intimated that perhaps a limited strategy would be more appropriate focused on recapturing the main northern urban areas and containing the insurgents.
John Campbell from the Council on Foreign Relations concurred while adding that a political settlement that satisfies the Tuareg people and the militants would be paramount. He also argued that, even with foreign assistance, imposing order on the vast northern deserts would be “near impossible.”
Jihadists from Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith), a group linked to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), took advantage of a security vacuum created nine months ago by a military coup in March, forcing President Amadou Toumani Touré into exile for his perceived mishandling of the Tuareg rebellion.
According to Foreign Policy, the Tuareg rebels, who’ve had legitimate grievances with the Malian government since the early 1960s, aligned with jihadist forces after the coup, defeated the national army, captured the key cities of Timbuktu, Kidal, and Gao and declared the northern part of the country an autonomous state called “Azawad.” The militants triggered French intervention when they captured the strategic town of Konna during their southward advance earlier in the week.
Analysts also said the toppling of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi helped strengthen the terrorist network. Weapons stolen from Libya’s arsenal were smuggled into Mali while Gaddafi mercenaries returned to their homeland heavily armed, joined the insurgency and altered the country’s delicate power balance.
Once considered a model of democracy in Africa, Mali, which gained independence from French colonial rule in 1960, rapidly descended into anarchy “seemingly overnight,” according to Mali specialist Martin van Vliet.
In order to restore stability and reestablish state authority Mali’s political elite must cease relying on militias to maintain security, a practice that has fueled local ethnic and tribal rivalries. State representatives must also abjure partaking in the drug trade and kidnapping industry established by AQIM. The International Crisis Group has characterized the Touré regime’s rule as “remote control governance through dubious criminal and mafia intermediaries.”
In addition, government investment and international aid have primarily been oriented toward the south while continual neglect of the Tuareg people in the north has further substantiated the jihadist call to arms.
Although military pressure seems unavoidable in the short-term, the international community must be wary of the long-term implications of empowering local strongmen and transnational crime syndicates. The Malian government and its allies must come to understand that a predominantly military response will not ultimately resolve Mali’s “multifaceted crises” which will necessitate some semblance of political reconciliation.
Meanwhile, French fighter jets targeted training camps, depots and other militant positions on Sunday, marking a “decisive intensification” of the mission, which after three days has killed more than 100 rebels. France also reportedly deployed ground troops, splitting a force of 550 between Bamako and Mopti, while French airstrikes allowed Malian soldiers to recapture Konna.
French military action fast-forwarded a UN-backed intervention plan not due to start until September, which called for a Nigerian-led force of 3,300 to be fielded by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Yet many Western leaders have been openly skeptical of the operational readiness of the ECOWAS army and its ability to counter a battle-tested insurgency acclimated to fighting in the Sahel’s unforgiving desert.
Although largely silent on recent developments, U.S. officials on Sunday offered to provide France with surveillance drones and logistical assistance. White House National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said the administration “noted that the government of Mali has asked for support, and we share the French goal of denying terrorists a safe haven in the region.”