Mali: The long, troubled desert road ahead

Story highlights

  • French advance through Mali reminiscent of early days of U.S. invasion of Iraq
  • Restoring territorial integrity of Mali is more than bombing Islamist hideouts
  • Jihadists can retreat into thousands of miles of unpoliced territory in northern Mali
  • Mali's problems include a discredited military, weak political institutions, Tuareg separatism

"Operation Serval" -- the rapid French advance through Mali -- is in some ways reminiscent of the early days of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. "Mission accomplished" in short order, cities secured, no great resistance.

But although the scale of the French operation is far smaller than that in Iraq, there may be less welcome parallels in the weeks to come. The first suicide bomber has struck; jihadists have melted away.

Putting Mali back together again will be an altogether tougher job. The second phase of the French campaign -- restoring the territorial integrity of Mali -- is far more challenging than bombing Islamist hideouts, and involves complex political, social and economic dynamics

What's behind the instability in Mali?

In short order these include a Malian military with little credibility and discipline, political institutions that have atrophied, Tuareg separatism, continuing tensions between north and south (including allegations of human rights atrocities), vast uninhabited areas that could be bolt-holes for militants, and a refugee crisis.

Fighting broke out in the capital, Bamako, Friday between soldiers loyal to the president deposed last year and troops who supported the coup against him.

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In addition, as the French look to scale back their presence, the African security force due to replace them is far from fully-fledged -- an uncomfortable mix of English and French-speaking contingents with different military cultures and levels of experience. A Nigerian general is in charge; his deputy is from Niger.

Six reasons events in Mali matter

Of some 5,000 troops due to arrive, about 2,500 are so far on the ground -- among them Chadian, Nigerian, Burkinabe and Nigerien soldiers. But the force has no airlift capability of its own. Nor does most of it have the mobility to root out scattered pockets of resistance, although the Chadians have experience in desert warfare.

And on a broader canvas the fundamental regional problems remain as deep-seated as ever. As a senior national security official in the Obama Administration put it recently: "What we're seeing across North Africa and parts of the Middle East is an extremist threat that is fueled by the reality of porous borders, ungoverned territory, too readily available weapons, increasing collaboration among some of these groups, and, in many cases, a new government that lacks the capacity and sometimes the will to deal with the problem."

In Mali's case, tick every one of those boxes.

The Vanishing Enemy

The French advance into northern Mali did not involve pitched battles with the hundreds of Islamist fighters that had occupied towns like Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu. After clashes in Konna, most opted to relinquish control of towns and disappear into the desert. There are reports that some fighters have mixed in with refugees arriving in neighboring Mauritania; and that others shaved their beards and mixed in with the general population. The Algerian military has reinforced border security to try to prevent militants crossing.

Read more: French troops kill 'hundreds' of Islamist fighters in Mali

The French Defense Minister, Jean Yves Le Drian, says that "hundreds" of militants have been killed over the last month. This week French forces have pursued militants who retreated into the desert around Gao and Kidal, where intense air strikes have been reported. Some 1,000 Chadian troops began moving out of Kidal toward the wild Ifhogas mountains further north and the Algerian border. By Thursday night they had reached the last Islamist bastions close to the border -- around Aguelhok.

Some senior militants have been detained, including the man said to have organized the application of Sharia law in Timbuktu for Ansar Dine, one of three Islamist groups with a presence in northern Mali.

The unknown is how well the various jihadist groups had prepared for such a rapid retreat, whether they had rear bases and supply lines ready, and whether those places have been identified and targeted by French air power. The French aim is to cut off their lines of supply, helped by Algeria's reinforcement of its border security.

France now has as many troops in Mali as it did at the height of its commitment in Afghanistan -- and, strapped for cash, it wants to begin withdrawing some within weeks. But it has already hinted that special forces will remain for pursuit operations against what Le Drian called "residual jihadists."

France determined to 'eradicate' terrorism in Mali, official says

"We will continue to act in the north where some terrorist havens remain," Foreign Minister Fabius told a French newspaper this week.

That will probably mean keeping bombers at the airfields in Timbuktu and Sevare.

Even so, while borders in the Sahel may appear on maps, they have little bearing on reality. There are thousands of miles of unmarked, unpatrolled frontiers across which groups can retreat and reorganize. In contrast to Algeria, the ability of the Libyan and Nigerien authorities to prevent militants crossing is limited at best.

United States, Italy lend support for French in Mali

If these groups have remained (relatively) coherent, the next stage of the battle for Mali could comprise what is euphemistically known as "assymetrical warfare" -- suicide bombings, IEDs and assassinations.

The jihadist groups present in Mali don't have a history of using IEDs, but al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Movement for the Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) have both used such devices in Algeria.

And MUJAO says it has planted mines around the northern towns it controlled. One has already killed four Malian soldiers. The group's spokesman, Walid Abou Sarraoui, told Radio France Internationale Thursday that the jihadists were "opening a new zone of conflict."

In Gao, a town controlled by MUJAO until recently, a suicide bomber on a motorcycle blew himself up Friday, injuring one other person.

The Intelligence Challenge

Northern Mali is larger in area than Spain and while much is open desert, the Adrar de Ifoghas mountains include networks of caves and passes. Moktar Belmoktar, whose followers carried out the attack on the Algerian gas facility at In Amenas in January, and Iyad ag Ghali -- a Tuareg and leader of Ansar Dine -- know this region in intimate detail.

Over the years, Belmoktar (who is Algerian) has used his knowledge of the region to establish a flourishing smuggling and kidnapping business that has funded weapons-buying and recruitment. His group and MUJAO are thought to have taken seven French hostages they already held into the impenetrable Ifoghas.

Read more: New fears for Timbuktu in Mali conflict

French intervention may have disrupted traditional smuggling routes -- depriving these groups of revenues. But the idea that the Islamists will wither away is wishful thinking, according to regional analysts. Hence the recent agreement made by the U.S. to begin stationing surveillance drones in neighboring Niger. France has virtually no drone capability of its own.

The question is, as the French withdraw, whether the African garrison force replacing them has the resources to go after the remnants of these groups. Perhaps implicitly acknowledging its limitations, France has already suggested a U.N. peacekeeping force to be deployed by April.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon is apprehensive. "Our worry is that [the jihadists] could reappear, and that could affect the countries of the region," he said Thursday.

Distrust and Revenge

The events of the last year in Mali have introduced an atmosphere of deep distrust -- and episodes of revenge -- into what had been a moderate and tolerant country. Tuareg stranded in the capital Bamako speak of hostility toward them.

The Malian army is accused of atrocities in towns that have been recaptured. In one incident, troops are said to have killed a group of Malian and Mauritanian preachers on a bus in Diabaly in September; it's unclear whether they mistook them for militants.

The International Federation of Human Rights Leagues said last week that Malian soldiers had summarily executed at least 11 people in Sevare. The U.N. refugee agency says reports of revenge attacks against Tuareg and Arabs are dissuading some among the nearly 400,000 internally displaced from returning home.

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In turn Malian officials have accused the MNLA -- the largest Tuareg rebel group -- of executing soldiers.

Despite years of training by U.S. Special Forces, discipline in the Malian army fell apart after Tuareg separatists began seizing parts of northern Mali a year ago. Tuareg army units (integrated into the military in the 1990s) defected.

This sense of distrust is complicated by facts on the ground. Rather than the Malian authorities taking control of cities like Kidal in the wake of the French advance, it is Tuareg separatists of the MNLA (who defeated the army last year) that are patrolling the streets. That sets up another possible confrontation between troops and separatists.

Mali's small but influential Arab population may also be targeted for revenge because some of the more ruthless Islamist militants were Arabs (though not all were from Mali) associated with the implementation of Sharia law.

Talking to the Tuareg

The grievances among the ethnic Tuareg that led to the division of Mali in the first place are yet to be addressed. The on-off alliance of Tuareg and Islamist groups appears to have hardened resentment toward the north among southerners.

The press in Bamako has voiced visceral hostility toward the MNLA for its attempts to assist the French in pursuit of militants of Ansar Dine. The MNLA "is and remains the main cause of unhappiness in northern Mali," complained the newspaper MaliJet. "Sooner or later, history will catch up with it."

Another journal noted it was now the turn of the Tuareg, who had "invited the terrorists into the north" along with France to "install another republic or another province of France in the heart of the Sahel."

And it appears that the president of neighboring Niger, Mahamadou Issoufou, is urging his Malian counterpart to take a hard line against the MNLA, mindful of Niger's own troubles with its Tuareg minority.

But a new deal for the Tuareg -- involving a greater measure of autonomy and long-promised economic aid for the region -- is essential if stability is to be restored in the north.

It won't happen overnight, and the French -- as the former colonial power -- can't be seen to be dictating the process. But there is already a window of opportunity with the split of Ansar Dine, the Islamist group created in 2011 and led by Iyad Ag Ghali. While his whereabouts are unknown, his deputy, Alghabass Ag Intallah, has formed a splinter group -- the Islamic Movement of Azawad -- and says he is ready for negotiations. Similar noises are coming from the MNLA in recent days.

Peeling more moderate Tuareg away from the stew of rebel groups is a first step toward restoring security.

Putting Mali back together again

The second step will be to give Tuareg a stake in the country through greater autonomy. France is aware of the need for a broader political settlement in Mali if the militants are to be kept away.

"Our objective cannot be achieved with arms only," Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told CNN affiliate BFM.

The United States is urging a new political dialogue in Mali ahead of critical elections scheduled for July -- elections that can only be successful if the country is pacified. And the schedule looks demanding -- a new constitution, new voters rolls, polling security, all within months.

And there's a humanitarian crisis to tackle too. There are already more than 150,000 Malian refugees in Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Algeria, and many more internally displaced. International NGOs have moved swiftly to provide food aid to recently liberated parts of northern Mali, but expect their assistance will be needed for the rest of the year.

In parallel with efforts to restore democracy, the European Union will try to train the Malian army. About 200 instructors are likely to arrive by mid-February, with 16 member states pledging training assistance. They will have their hands full: the mutiny Friday in Bamako is the latest illustration of a fractious, ineffective force.

Not so long ago, Mali was one of Africa's success stories. One president ceded power peacefully to the next. Travelers marveled at the centuries-old religious and cultural heritage of Timbuktu. The country's musical talent -- second to none in Africa -- had western artists beating a path to the studios of Bamako. Its footballers found fame and fortune in Europe.

Now, despite the events of the last month, Mali's future looks much more uncertain.

Alex Thurston, author of Sahel Blog, says that "If efforts at national reunification and reconstruction falter, bitterness among northern communities, combined with unaddressed grievances, could plunge Mali back into crisis a few years from now."

Acknowledging the daunting task ahead, more than forty of Mali's best-known musicians gathered in Bamako last month to record a song, "Mali Peace."

"What's going on in Mali?" they sang. "Do we really want to kill each other? Do we really want to betray each other? If we are not careful, our children will suffer tomorrow."