In what could be a taste of things to come, former French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing warned President Francois Hollande on Wednesday against letting the French intervention evolve into a “neocolonialist” type of action. “France should limit itself strictly to its logistical support to African forces,” he told the newspaper Le Monde.
But military analysts say a high-tech campaign centered on airstrikes, surveillance drones and satellite intelligence is unlikely to dislodge the Islamists.
Strikes on northern towns such as Gao have only driven the militants underground. The ineffective Malian military has been unable to retake Konna from the militants, despite an intense campaign of aerial assaults, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said at a news conference Tuesday.
‘It will get messy’
The takeover of Diabaly came despite several days of bombing by French Mirage 2000D and Rafale warplanes, as well as repeated vows by Malian army officers to storm their opponents.
“This is not a war that can be fought from the air. This is a war that has to be fought on the ground,” Pham said. “It will get messy.”
On Wednesday, it was unclear whether the ground operations had begun. Le Drian told RTL radio: “Today the ground forces are in the process of deploying. Now the French forces are reaching the north.” But France’s chief of staff, Adm. Edouard Guillaud, told Europe 1 television that ground operations were launched overnight.
Le Drian said the Islamist guerrillas were part of the main faction of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, commanded by a veteran Algerian underground fighter, Abdulhamid Abu Zeid. They constituted the western column of a two-pronged southward offensive launched a week ago in what French officials said was an attempt to take Bamako, the capital, and turn Mali into a terrorist-ruled country.
Around Diabaly, Le Drian said, “we have the hardest groups, the most fanatic, the best organized, the most determined and the best armed.”
He added, “We have on our hands in this zone several hundred, more than a thousand, 1,200, 1,300 terrorists, with perhaps reinforcements tomorrow.”
Challenges for troops
The French deployment is set to number 2,500 troops when it reaches full force, around the same as deployed in Afghanistan at its peak.
In Mali, though, French forces face several key challenges. They lack resources and have to depend on Western allies, such as the United States and Britain, for logistical support. They will also depend largely on Washington for aerial intelligence, such as drone surveillance, satellite imagery and cellphone monitoring.
France seeks to eventually transfer leadership of the operation to 3,000 African troops promised by Mali’s neighbors and approved by the U.N. Security Council. The European Union has pledged to train the troops. But even if Mali’s neighbors speed up their deployments, it could take weeks or months to adequately train the troops. They, too, have little experience fighting in the desert.
The Islamists have rocket-
propelled grenades, machine guns mounted on pickup trucks and armored personnel carriers seized from Mali’s military, among other weapons. They have also been recruiting child fighters, which could complicate France’s ground war.
“How is this going to play out in Paris or Lyon when French soldiers are shooting children?” Pham said.