Can France sustain an enduring peace in Mali?
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With the liberation of the city of Kidal, Islamist militants no longer control any major northern Mali city. Pierre Boilley, a Mali expert, examines what might happen next.
While the French military operation in Timbuktu ended with a decisive symbolic liberation earlier this week, the arrival of the French forces in the northern Malian city of Kidal on January 30 was a surprise, especially since it was accomplished without Malian troops.
“Liberating Gao and Timbuktu very quickly was part of the plan. Now it's up to the African countries to take over,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told the French daily, Le Parisien, earlier this week. “We decided to put in the means and the necessary number of soldiers to strike hard. But the French contingent will not stay like this. We will leave very quickly."
But the 8,000 soldiers pledged by neighbouring West African nations have not yet arrived in Mali. Until that happens, and the troops under the UN-approved African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) are fully ready for a hand-over, what is France’s strategy in Mali now? How can the French military secure a vast region where Islamist militants have probably melted into the desert or the mountains near the Algerian border, continuing the threat of terrorist attacks? FRANCE 24 posed some of these pressing questions to Pierre Boilley, director of the Paris-based CEMAF (Centre d’Études des Mondes Africains).
FRANCE 24: With the liberation of Kidal, the last major city in northern Mali, can the French military claim victory?
Pierre Boilley: Gao, Timbuktu, Menaka and now Kidal, all the major northern Malian cities where the Salafists imposed their violent interpretation of sharia, are now either under the control of the Malian and French army, or the French army alone. The Islamist militants have suffered significant losses. The French have inflicted major damages on their convoys of pick-up trucks.
At the very least, the French intervention helped resolve the situation in a region occupied by Islamist militants. Now, it’s premature to say that France won the war because if it does not take every precaution to win the peace, it will be a failure.
In fact, the jihadists are no longer visible, but in reality, they are still a force to reckon with.
F24: Will the French troops try to hunt down jihadist leaders such Ansar Dine chief Iyad Ag Ghali or al Qaeda’s Abou Zeid who have probably retreated to the mountains near the Algerian border?
P.B.: The presence of jihadists in the mountains poses an obvious problem because these people have the power and the willingness to become a major nuisance.
But I doubt the French military, as it’s currently organized, has the wherewithal to be able to spend months and months in the mountains hunting specific Islamist militants.
Other northern Malian rebel forces, such as the Tuareg MNLA [National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad], who have offered their service and are familiar with the terrain and population, would have a better chance of rooting out the jihadists.
F24: Paris maintains that it is making every effort to have good intelligence relations with the Tuareg. Can France work with groups that, at one time, allied themselves with Islamist militants to conquer northern Mali?
P. B.: From the moment the MNLA offers its services, or is willing to negotiate, or proves that it will not deal with Islamic extremists, one can imagine that, with pragmatism and intelligence, they will be given the chance to negotiate with Bamako.
The French army itself should remain present in the region to monitor the situation. French intelligence can be used, for instance, to track convoys of pick-up trucks and therefore avoid potential suicide operations.
F24: French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, however, indicated that French troops would leave Mali “quickly” and handover to an African force…
P.B.: In my opinion, they’d have to be a little more careful. We cannot allow African forces to tackle the problem alone.
We must understand that the Malian army and MNLA were at loggerheads for several months and are mutually resentful and distrustful. There is a strong desire for revenge on the part of the Malian army, which could pose a serious problem in the northern regions.
We could see a proliferation of abuses against civilians as happened in Gao and Timbuktu. There are also concerns of an outburst of violence that could push the MNLA to take up arms to defend their people and exacerbate the disenfranchisement of some northern populations.
I tend to think that the French army intervened alone in Kidal only to avoid these tensions. The situation in the north is not at all stable. It seems to me that the presence of the French army will be needed for some time as a stablising force.