Mission Accomplished For France, Future Uncertain For Mali

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By Jacey Fortin | February 2, 2013 9:36 AM EST

As French President François Hollande prepares to visit Malian President Dioncounda Traore on Saturday, their exchange will be much calmer than the one they had just three weeks ago.

In early January, Traore had called on France to help quash a worsening crisis: more than half the country was under the control of Islamist militants. The insurgents’ push from their northern bastion into central Mali got a swift response from French troops on Jan. 11.

Three weeks later, the operation -- dubbed ‘Serval’ after an African wildcat -- appears to have been a success. Islamist insurgents have been routed from the urban strongholds they once held in the central and northern regions, and most Malians have responded positively to the French intervention.

“Hollande is very likely to get a warm welcome from everyone except the hardcore jihadists,” says Stephen Smith, a visiting professor of African Studies at Duke University in Durham, N.C. and the former Africa editor for the French newspaper Le Monde.

“He is going for a one-day trip to show that he is the commander-in-chief, getting that [image of authority] on the prime time news and then going back to France.”

This is indeed a favorable press opportunity for the president, who will be accompanied by Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. Polls have shown that most of the French population supports the intervention in Mali. Also, Hollande’s approval rate, which fell to an all-time low of 40 percent in December, is now up to 44.

But a no single visit, speech or photo-op can convey the depth of the problems that still plague Mali, even with the successes of Serval. France’s entry was sudden; its withdrawal could be rapid as well. But the establishment of peace in Mali is a process that will drag on long after the last French combat boot leaves the ground.

Insurgents have occupied northern Mali for about a year. It began with a push from the Tuaregs, a nomadic group hailing from the Sahel that has long battled regional governments in pursuit of an independent state. But Islamists linked to al-Qaeda followed on the Tuaregs’ heels, eventually overtaking or else absorbing their predecessors and enforcing a harsh version of Shariah, or Islamic law, on communities that had hitherto practiced a more moderate form of Islam.

The insurgency triggered a serious human rights crisis in northern Mali. Civilians were subjected to brutal punishments including floggings, amputations and executions. Jihadists recruited child soldiers to join their militias. Aid groups lost access to poverty-stricken communities. Hundreds of thousands of Malians were displaced.

And as Mali became a haven for militant ideologues, it became clear to international observers that the situation was becoming a major global security threat. No surprise, then, that France was willing to accommodate Bamako’s request for an intervention.

During the early days of Serval, the overall timeline was vague. Le Drian said on Jan. 20 that “the goal is the total reconquest of Mali,” adding that French troops would “not leave any pockets” of insurgency.

But since then, rhetoric on France’s commitment has been toned down. Paris officials now say that a withdrawal could be close at hand; African forces will take over the peacekeeping operations in Mali when French forces leave. There are now about 3,000 of them on the ground, mostly from the neighboring countries of Chad and Niger. Another 5,000 soldiers from across the continent are also expected to deploy.

Those troops will have a daunting task ahead of them. French forces may have retaken some towns, but now begins what is arguably the most difficult phase of the counterinsurgency.

“It’s not difficult to conquer the northern towns, especially when the jihadists don’t put up a resistance,” says Smith. “It will be much harder to dislodge them from the desert; it is a mountainous region where it’s easy to hide, and the jihadists know the terrain.”

Furthermore, these insurgents are not monolithic. They belong to various groups, and the lines between them are blurred by shifting allegiances and considerable overlaps. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, is one major actor; others include Ansar Dine, MUJAO, and a Tuareg rebel organization -- the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, or MNLA in French -- that is largely secular.

It will be difficult for incoming African troops -- who may themselves suffer from a lack of cohesion -- to track down these militants, many of whom can easily blend into civilian communities.

Achieving political stability will be another tall order; in March of last year, a band of mutinous soldiers stormed Bamako and overthrew the civilian government, upending two decades of relatively stable democracy. A transitional administration has since been established in the capital city of Bamako, and if all goes according to plan, a national election will take place this year.

And then there are the ethnic clashes.

Longstanding tensions exist between the largely black African population in southern Mali and the descendants of Berbers and Arabs who dominate many areas in the north, and the rift was exacerbated by the human rights abuses committed by Tuaregs and Islamists during the insurgency. Now that forces from Bamako are pushing northward, retaliatory attacks committed by troops against lighter-skinned civilians have there already been reported.

“The institutional capacity of the West African forces is not very impressive, but they can bring a level of stability,” says Smith. “But the longer it lasts, the higher the risk of them getting out of control. West African soldiers would be sympathetic to the resentment that southern Malians have against the northern Tuareg population, so tensions could arise.”

The French people may approve of their military involvement in Mali for the moment. But with complications like this threatening to bog down the operation, the enthusiasm may fade -- just as it did for the war in Afghanistan, which was also initially supported by the French populace.

It is no surprise that France is keen to end things on a good note. They have achieved a quick initial victory are lauded by the vast majority of Malians -- an admirable feat. Regional stability will soon be in the hands of thousands of African troops and a weakened Bamako. For them, the biggest challenges are yet to come.

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