Dangers of force
Mathieu Guidere, a researcher specializing in North Africa’s Islamist movements, said the 3,300-man African force would likely prove insufficient. Northern Mali comprises more than 300,000 square miles of harsh desert. Moreover, there are between 10,000 and 15,000 heavily armed Islamists, he said.
Deploying black African soldiers, many of them non-Muslim, in a region inhabited by Arabs and Tuaregs, many of them fundamentalist Muslims, could risk a backlash. Any occupation could look like religious and ethnic warfare to restore authority by the largely black leadership in Bamako, Guidere said.
Unlike Somalia, whose neighbors supported military action, some of Mali’s neighbors are wary of such missions. Nigeria, a regional military powerhouse, is grappling with its own Islamist threat from Boko Haram. Algeria fears a military strike would drive northern Mali’s militants back into Algeria, where many AQIM leaders battled the government in the 1990s.
Following recent visits to Algiers by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and top French officials, Algeria has shown more willingness for a military intervention, but only under certain conditions. Like the United States and European countries, Algeria wants any military action to focus on destroying the militants and their capabilities.
Malian military commanders said they were confident they could take the lead — as long as they received assistance, especially from the United States and its armed drones.
“Even if we had 1,000 soldiers, but with a big air component, it will solve the problem,” said Col. Oumar Dao, who is in charge of the military’s major operations. “The drones were effective in Somalia. Look what happened to al-Shabab.”
According to residents and officials, the Islamists are preparing for a guerrilla conflict. New training camps have cropped up, including one at Gao’s airport, said Diallo, the former Gao mayor. “If the international community does not act quickly, the north will become a more dangerous terrain to reclaim,” he added.
Cody reported from Paris. Colum Lynch in New York contributed to this report.