For more than half a year, a territory the size of Texas has been ruled by Sharia law. Women are not allowed outside their homes without male escort. Ancient tombs and temples are being destroyed for "contradicting pure Islam". "Crimes" such as possessing cigarettes, playing soccer or wearing "indecent clothes" are being punished by canning. Theft is punished by cutting an arm off. And those convicted of infidelity are stoned to death.
The black flags of Al Qaeda flow freely in the towns of Northern Mali, and the leaders of the African branch of the movement, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have cast deep roots there. The area is awash with terrorist training camps where international jihadists are being trained. The rumours are that the majority of them come from Saharan and Sub-Saharan Africa, but there are also some Pakistanis, and fundamentalists from Europe.
The analogy to Taliban Afghanistan comes naturally. And naturally, the existence of such a place just a couple of hours' flight away from Europe poses a serious security threat not just for the entire region, but for the world at large. In this situation, the international intervention against the Islamists in Northern Mali was as undesirable, as it was unavoidable. And despite the controversial history of the French military interventions in Africa, president Francois Hollande may not have had much of a choice when he received a request from his Malian counterpart Dioncounda Traore to send troops against the incoming Islamists.
And so, ten days ago the French military aircraft started pouring bombs over the heads of the rebels and pounding their bases. But Paris looked totally unprepared and surprised by the events that followed. The attempt to free a French hostage in Somalia ended with a bloody fiasco, and several days of intensive bombing didn't manage to fully halt the momentum of the Malian Islamists. So a ground operation became urgent. In the ensuing hostage drama in Algeria (which obviously came as a response to the events in Mali), hundreds of hostages were taken, including 40 foreigners. And dozens of people died.
French officials were cited saying that initially they had thought they'd be dealing with some people going around in their pickup trucks. Instead, they turned out to be well trained, well equipped and well armed militants. Apparently, they had improved their military capabilities since Libya, and their organisation has become more effective than anticipated.
Now for more than a week, the ultimate objectives of the French operation remain unclear, and the contradictory statements coming from Paris tend to vary from giving it a duration of "a few weeks", through "as quickly as possible", to "as much time as Mali needs to get back on its feet". But the Islamists have already shown that they don't intend to roll over without a fight, so the initial French presence had to be tripled from 750 to 2500 soldiers. Given the pattern of the interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia or Libya, all of this is starting to look like a recipe for a protracted war, and even more prolonged instability. Which explains why the international support for the French offensive is mainly in words at this point, the only active participants being the US and UK. The former, mostly helping with intelligence and logistics, the latter with aircraft and supplies. But no one outside the African countries is showing any desire to send troops.
The French had been following the situation in Mali for months, ever since the Islamists renewed their assault in March. It was the French active lobbying that led to UNSC Resolution 2085 that authorised sending international troops to deal with the fundamentalists. But the plan was to keep those forces under the jurisdiction of the regional economic bloc ECOWAS, which announced last summer that they were prepared to send 3300 troops to help the Malian army. Europe's and America's role was supposed to be limited to mere logistic support, and possibly organisation assistance.
So we keep hearing the old mantra that Africa's problems ought to be handled by Africans, but everything then turns on its head, once reality comes into the equation. In this case, everything turned around on January 10, when the Islamists started their all-out assault against the South. The Malian army was unable to check them, and the town of Kona was captured within hours, which opened the road to the capital Bamako. These events caused mass panic in the capital, and it prompted the interim president to appeal to France for help. Facing the prospect of losing the whole country to Islamist control and allowing Mali to succumb to Somali-style anarchy, the French were forced to step in.
Whether the goal of the Islamist offensive was to increase their territory of control, or just to flex some muscle, or to cause chaos in Southern Mali, we'll probably never know for sure. But that's of little relevance at the moment. After a six-month long relative peace, they delivered the first strike. In fact they've been holding the initiative ever since, and France found itself dragged into the conflict without being prepared for it.
It's now obvious that the objectives of the French operation were confined to containing the Islamists. And probably the only longer-term goal was to secure government control of the Mopti Airport (which serves as a natural bottleneck), because if the Islamists capture it, any operation in attempt to re-capture the North would be a logistic nightmare. After the French intervention, this goal was achieved, granted. But all certainty about the further steps ends right there.
Hollande's government is categorical that France would transfer the main responsibility for the operation to ECOWAS at the first opportunity. But ECOWAS was supposed to intervene in September, and currently there's huge pressure on the other countries in the region to commit the promised troops as soon as possible. But it seems the African countries have no intention to take the leading role any time soon. Coming from various countries and speaking various languages, they'd need some preparation before they reach a level of effectiveness that would make a coordinated operation possible. Probably in about a month, the African forces could reach the promised 3300 troops, but they'll need as much time before they're fully capable of dealing with the situation on their own. And the hostile terrain in Northern Mali (the most inhospitable part of Sahara) would be an additional obstacle. All the while, fighting against experienced militants who are feeling at home in that environment.
So the day when the African nations will finally take matters in their hands, remains vaguely distant. Until then, France will have to work out some strategy that would possibly determine the final outcome of the whole international intervention.
Right now, there are roughly two options. A full-out operation against the Islamists, or just pushing them back into Northern Mali without pursuing them further into the desert. I'd say there's no sense in continuing further north at this point. On one side, multiple towns in the interior of the Islamist-controlled territory were bombed since day one of the operation, without knowing for sure what exactly was hit. And if they're given enough time, the rebels would be able to regroup and entrench themselves in the area, which would make any further attempt for ground assault on those towns a very big challenge. On the other hand, if they simply stop at the border of Northern Mali, the French troops would automatically turn themselves into a relatively comfortable and static target.
But the former could hardly be called a "strategy", either. Driving the rebels out of the northern towns would hardly be a big challenge for any modern and well-equipped army which has aircraft at its disposal - no matter how deep the rebels have dug themselves in. After all, we're speaking of no more than 10-12 thousand militants, their core consisting of 3-4 thousand, who don't enjoy much support from the local population, ever since they displaced the local nationalist resistance and took control of the area. Besides, the towns themselves are not big at all. And removing the militants from there wouldn't completely remove the threat.
We should keep in mind that no government had ever been able to establish full control over the region. The French couldn't do this in colonial times, and the countries that emerged in their place didn't manage either. It's just that the desert doesn't allow that. The borders may exist on paper, but in reality they're just a fiction. There's no way to track everyone's movement. There's no way to dig through all the sand and find every single Islamist. So, if they're driven out of the towns, they'll simply retreat to the desert, they'll regroup and pop up somewhere else - like Chad, or Algeria, or Niger or Mauritania. They'll remain a factor for a long time, capable of launching massive surprise attacks.
The real question that the French should be asking themselves is, what would happen after they kick the fundamentalists out. In the last year or so, Mali has practically changed from an example of stability and democracy in the region (at least its southern half), into a failed, unmanageable state. In less than a year, the military has shown its absolute inability to defend the territorial integrity of the country. Its poorly equipped and unprepared. We've all seen the ridiculous footage of what the training process of the Malian regular troops looks like. But meanwhile the Malian military has shown a tremendous capability of staging military coups. They deposed the last president, they organised a beating of his successor, and they arrested the prime minister. The Malian institutions are dysfunctional and they can't take any effective decisions about the future of the country. There's no legitimate authority and even no figure that looks capable of amassing enough public support to unite the nation. It all looks very similar to Somalia.
So, firstly it's unclear who'd take responsibility for restoring order and reconstructing Northern Mali, even if the Islamists were to miraculously disappear tomorrow. There are no viable alternatives to Bamako. Meanwhile, it's good to keep in mind that the main reason for the current state of affairs is the success of the Islamist rebellion, which, at the time in alliance with the local Tuareg nationalists, de facto split the country in two. That's why a strategy is urgently needed to prevent the same scenario repeating elsewhere in the region. In the meantime, France will have to think very carefully how to finish what it has begun, lest they want to find themselves stuck in their own version of the Afghanistan quagmire.
Or they could go the South Sudan route and legitimise the splitting of Mali, and reverse their arbitrary map-drawing from the past. But that could turn Northern Mali into a permanent snake nest, very close to Europe's backyard.