France’s strategy was — and officially remains — to secure Bamako, Mali’s capital, and the southern third of the country, then hold back on the ground while African troops, backed by French air power, recapture the Islamist-controlled northern cities of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal, French officials said. But that
has become a more difficult and longer-term proposition. The African force, they acknowledged, is far from ready to assume its planned role.
About 1,000 African soldiers from five countries have been sent to Mali, out of the more than 3,000 planned, according to the French Defense Ministry. Their European Union trainers are nowhere to be seen except on the drawing board.
Against that background, specialists in Paris have begun to suggest that French forces should push on northward and secure the region’s main cities rather than sit idle on the new front line waiting for the Africans. But after the cities, the question would become: What about the 250,000-square-mile countryside?
“The fear of a new Afghanistan is haunting people’s minds,” wrote Yves Threard this week in Le Figaro newspaper. “Increased by the fact that our soldiers seem very alone on the ground to pursue the terrorist hunt.”
Konna was recaptured only last weekend, despite 10 days of bombing attacks. Similarly, a column of French armored personnel carriers entered the city of Diabaly, which was captured by the jihadists three days after the military intervention began, only on Monday.
“The war against the Islamists is not at all easy, and there’s a very small part of the population which is helping their cause,” Lt. Col. Seydou Sogoba, the Malian force commander in Niono, told reporters. “That is what is making the fight against them tough.”
Harbinger of future battles
What happened in Diabaly last week shows how old animosities, religious divides and the unpopularity of Mali’s military could haunt the French in the weeks and months ahead.
On the night of Sept. 8, Malian soldiers in this desert town stopped a truck coming from neighboring Mauritania carrying 17 preachers, all members of Dawa, a nonviolent Islamic sect. The soldiers then sprayed bullets into the vehicle, killing all but one of the unarmed preachers, according to residents and human rights activists.
Residents say the deaths were one reason that the jihadists targeted the town.
“Some people say it was a kind of revenge for the Dawa preachers killed by the army,” said Adbullahi Dagnon, the interim tribal chief of Diabaly.
Some residents welcomed the jihadists, clapping and saying, “This is the real way of Islam,” Dagnon recalled.
The Malian army clashed with the Islamists but retreated before the French began launching airstrikes. The day the militants attacked, two Malian soldiers were killed. Residents were divided over burying the bodies, with followers of Dawa and Sunna, a conservative Muslim sect, wanting to throw the corpses into a canal, said community leaders. The bodies were tossed there but later buried in secret, residents said.