Hollande has said that the French forces, planned to number up to 2,500 when the deployment is complete, will stay as long as necessary, without providing a timeline.
Gerard Araud, France’s U.N. ambassador, said at a news conference that the United States, Britain, Belgium, Denmark and Canada have offered to help provide transport for the African intervention force. In addition, the United States has committed to helping France with intelligence and to provide tanker aircraft for aerial refueling of French Mirage and Rafale planes flying back and forth from Chad.
None of the Western allies, however, has offered to send ground troops. On the other hand, several European countries have volunteered to help train the Malian army and the multinational African force, called the International Support Mission in Mali.
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Hollande was forced to intervene immediately because a southward push by the Islamist guerrillas raised fears that the entire country would soon be taken over. That, he added, would have resulted in a large West African country run by Islamists.
The militant forces
The main Islamist group in Mali, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), comprises three battalions made up mostly of Algerians who fled south after a long and bloody Islamist underground war against the Algerian army in the 1990s. But it also includes Mauritanians, Malians and other recruits attracted to northern Mali since the nation’s army was scattered in the spring after a bungled coup d’etat in Bamako.
A second group, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, split off from AQIM but operates in close cooperation with AQIM units, according to Mathieu Guidere, a French specialist on African terrorism.
Together, they have long thrived on proceeds from hostage-taking and smuggling of cigarettes and Europe-bound cocaine, Guidere said. As a result of their flush finances, they are well armed with light weapons and move freely about the region in pickup trucks with machine guns or aged antiaircraft weapons mounted on the bed.
Ansar Dine, a third group, is led by Iyad ag Ghali, a rebellious former Malian army officer who was converted to extremist Salafist doctrine while serving in the Malian Consulate in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia.
Ghali belongs to the Tuareg ethnic group, whose members differ from the black Africans ruling in Bamako and have repeatedly sought to eliminate government control. Since his return from Saudi Arabia, Ghali has split with other Tuareg independence leaders in favor of a close alliance with AQIM and a fierce determination to impose strict Muslim law in the Tuareg area.
But the Malian army was driven out of northern Mali by a fourth group, the secular Azawad National Liberation Movement led by Col. Mohammed ag Najim.
Najim’s militia served for several years in Libya as an adjunct to Moammar Gaddafi’s army. When Gaddafi was toppled by a French-led air campaign in coordination with Libyan rebels in 2011, Najim returned to Mali with plentiful supplies of weapons and ammunition lifted from Gaddafi’s warehouses.
Some reports said Najim brought with him some of Libya’s portable surface-to-air missiles, raising the prospect of the weapons being sold to AQIM and used against civilian flights that pass routinely over the area. French diplomats cited those fears as they sought to round up support for an international intervention in Mali.
The Malian army, leaderless after the coup in March, was no match for Najim’s well-equipped men. Malian forces collapsed immediately, and Najim and his AQIM allies declared an independent Tuareg state.
Within a short time, however, Najim’s fighters were shoved aside by AQIM and Ansar Dine, whose leaders were intent on setting up an Islamic “caliphate” with a population ruled according to sharia, or Koranic law.
Najim has since been courted by French and other diplomats who are seeking to recruit him and his secular Tuareg forces in the battle against Islamist militias. But he has steered clear of the conflict, reportedly taking refuge in a neighboring country.