War now entering an uncertain phase
Almost three weeks into its military intervention in Mali, France is doing little to conceal its satisfaction with how events are playing out in the west African desert.
Having responded to a call for help from Mali’s government, French forces quickly achieved their initial aim of halting a southward push by jihadists who had seized control of the country’s north in May last year.
Having taken the initiative, the French then forced the militants into a long retreat, capturing major towns across a vast swathe of unfamiliar desert with striking speed and few losses.
In the towns of Konna, Diabaly, Gao and Timbuktu the arriving troops have been greeted as liberators by jubilant crowds waving French and Malian flags.
That progress on the ground has been matched by successful diplomatic manoeuvres. President François Hollande has received unanimous support from his allies as well as pledges of logistical support – if not combat troops – from the United States, Britain, Denmark and other countries.
A donor conference yesterday raised $455.53 million for the war effort, and the first contingents of an 8,000-strong African force have already crossed into Mali from neighbouring countries.
In France, where television pictures from embedded media emphasise the military’s rapid gains and their reception as liberators, Mr Hollande is seen as having risen in stature and authority.
Speaking as his troops reached Timbuktu on Monday, French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said France had two objectives in Mali: to halt the militant advance towards the capital, Bamako, and to take control of the population centres in the north. “The mission has been fulfilled,” he said.
Yet the war is now entering a more uncertain and potentially more dangerous phase.
French-led forces have encountered virtually no resistance as they have retaken northern towns. Instead the militants appear to have fled into the desert to avoid firefights against their vastly better-armed opponents.
Mr Hollande spoke last week of “eliminating the terrorists”, not moving them elsewhere.
But with the French anxious not to get bogged down in a messy counterinsurgency war in their former colony, Paris is making clear it wants to hand over to African forces the task of pursuing the militants into their redoubts in the desert.
“We are winning this battle,” Mr Hollande said on Monday evening. “When I say ‘We’, this is the Malian army, this is the Africans, supported by the French . . . Now the Africans can take over.”
“They’re the ones who will go into the area of the north, which we know is the most difficult because the terrorists are hidden there and can still lead operations that are extremely dangerous for neighbouring countries and for Mali,” he said.
Whoever takes the lead, France knows it will take a big share of the blame if security and stability cannot be restored in Mali.
Already, reports have begun to emerge of reprisals against alleged jihadist collaborators in Gao and Timbuktu.
If the Islamists were to regroup and launch a campaign of bomb attacks, raids and assassinations, would African forces have the means to respond?
Does the unelected, military-backed regime in Bamako have the capacity to rebuild a state bureaucracy across its huge territory? And can it find an accommodation with the Tuareg people of the north, whose uprising last year cleared the way for the Islamist offensive?