PARIS — After trying for months to organize an international coalition to intervene in Mali, France has suddenly started the job on its own, with Western allies offering support only from a distance and Mali’s African neighbors yet to show up on the battlefield.
The decision to send in French air and ground forces to combat Islamist militias in northern Mali without African or other international partners marked a bold departure for French President Francois Hollande. Since taking over in May, the Socialist leader had been criticized as indecisive and untutored in foreign affairs and had vowed to end France’s role as policeman in tumultuous African countries.
So far, the unexpected switch has paid off; Hollande has been praised at home and abroad for crisp leadership. But should the operation bog down in the dusty vastness of northern Mali, where the Islamists roam, it could become a weight around his neck and an easy target for the conservative opposition in Paris, as well as Islamist and anti-colonial elements around the world.
Hollande said Tuesday that French forces have no intention of remaining in Mali. During a visit to Dubai, he declared that they have been assigned to blunt a recent Islamist offensive; secure the capital, Bamako; and prepare the way for an African force that will assist the Malian army in restoring government authority across northern Mali.
France, which has a long colonial and post-colonial history in Africa, was uniquely equipped to intervene instantaneously in Mali, a former French colony. The French military has built up experience in African affairs with a string of interventions in recent decades. In addition, it has maintained bases in five African countries, with about 5,000 troops, as well as arms, vehicles and warplanes, prepositioned and ready to go.
Most of the French airstrikes since the campaign began Friday have been launched from a base at N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, about 1,200 miles to the east, where French Mirage 2000D fighter-bombers were on hand. Similarly, a military unit equipped with ERC-90 Sagaie armored vehicles, considered important for the broad sweep of the Malian conflict, drove into the country overland from a base in Senegal.
A long-promised African intervention force of 3,300, to be commanded by Nigerian Gen. Shehu Abdulkadir, has yet to show up, however. Nigeria said the first elements of its 900-member contribution should be arriving by Wednesday. But Hollande told reporters that it would be “a good week” before any of the other African troops are on hand.
Even after they arrive, it is unclear how long it will take to train troops from the various African nations to the point where they can work effectively with Malian, French and other forces against the lightly armed but extremely mobile Islamist fighters in northern Mali’s untamed, 250,000-square-mile northern sector.
The African governments originally promised to send soldiers as part of a French-led force that was to intervene next fall at the earliest. A senior French security official said recently that they were nowhere near trained and ready — or even selected by their governments. Hollande’s decision Friday to intervene immediately only added to the uncertainty.
In addition to Nigeria, 500 troops have been pledged by Togo, 300 by Benin, 600 by Niger and 500 by Burkina Faso. Since the French intervention began, Guinea, Ghana and Chad also have volunteered troops.
Tony Chafer, a specialist on French-African relations at the University of Portsmouth in England, said the most immediate problem facing the donor countries is that they have no troop transport planes. In addition, leaders of the African countries involved have been meeting to determine who will foot the bill for what promises to be a long, expensive deployment and what the exit strategy is, Chafer said, citing reports from officials at the meetings.
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 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.