Ousting Islamist insurgents from Mali’s desert north will probably prove more difficult than France’s weekend success in reversing the militants’ advance in the former French colony.
A 550-strong force of French air and ground forces carried out attacks on Jan. 11 that pushed the rebels out of Kona, a town about 700 kilometers (430 miles) north of the capital, Bamako, hours after President Francois Hollande announced that France would support Mali’s battle to win back two-thirds of its territory. The insurgents had taken Kona last week.
European and U.S. policy makers are concerned northern Mali may become an Islamist militant base to strike international targets and destabilize regional countries from Algeria to Nigeria. The rebels seized the north of Africa’s third-biggest gold producer after government soldiers overthrew the government in March. The army said it wasn’t adequately equipped or trained to take on the Islamists, who benefitted from arms flowing into Mali from the 2011 war in Libya.
“It will be very difficult and complicated, given the terrain,” David Zounmenou, a researcher in the African conflict prevention program at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa, said in a phone interview yesterday. “It’s not going to be quick, but it is certainly going to be helpful in restoring Mali’s territorial integrity.”
The Economic Community of West African States will meet Jan. 16 to discuss the deployment of about 2,000 Ecowas soldiers to Mali, a plan backed in a United Nations Security Council resolution last month to restore state control over the north. The intervention was being set for September.
“We had to act very quickly,” French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said yesterday on Europe 1 radio. “It would have been the total destruction of the Malian state.” He described the insurgents as a mix of “Islamic terrorists and gangsters, including arms traffickers.”
The Security Council will meet later today in New York to discuss the situation in Mali, France’s mission to the UN said yesterday in a posting on Twitter.
Mali’s own army has been beaten and fighters from Islamist groups including the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, Ansar ud-Din and al-Qaeda’s north African unit, along with Touareg separatists, are spread across an area the size of France itself.
A campaign to drive “hardcore Islamists” from key cities may not take too long, “but to eradicate their threat once and for all, it will probably take longer,” Samir Gadio, an emerging-markets strategist at Standard Bank Group Ltd. in London, said Jan. 12. “The risk however is that they regroup in the desert and continue to operate in small groups, making this desert zone relatively volatile in coming years.”
The U.S. has offered to provide intelligence, logistical support and in-flight refueling for French aircraft. The U.K. is assisting with two Boeing C-17 military cargo aircraft to help transport troops.
Four French Rafale jet fighters hit several targets near the northern city of Gao, notably rebel training camps, infrastructure and logistics depots, the Defense Ministry in Paris said yesterday in a statement.
Retaking Kona, about 400 kilometers south-west of Gao, will help secure the airport in nearby Mopti, providing a closer base for air raids on the north.
One French soldier, a helicopter pilot, has been killed since operations began, while the rebels have lost “a significant number of partisans,” Le Drian said.
France’s military operation has already drawn internal criticism. Former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said “none of the conditions of success exist” in Mali.
“We’re fighting blindly, due to a lack of war aims,” Villepin said in an opinion piece in Le Journal du Dimanche yesterday. “Stopping the progress of the Islamists, reconquering the north, eradicating the bases of al-Qaeda in the Maghreb are different wars.”