As French military operations in central and northern Mali appeared to drive the Islamist insurgency there into the desert, the country’s foreign minister Laurent Fabius said on Sunday that its involvement in the campaign will last “a matter of weeks.”
The immediate aim of France’s intervention in its former colony was to halt the rebels’ advance beyond the town of Konna which is situated on the road to the capital Bamako. Konna had been the de facto border between the Islamists in the north and the Malian government in the south.
After French bombardments, central government troops, possibly supported by French ground forces, recaptured Konna on Saturday. Defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian claimed that France’s intervention had prevented the insurgents from reaching Bamako itself and announced that 550 soldiers will be deployed to the capital as well as Mopti, one of the northernmost towns still under government control.
France has already hundreds of troops stationed across French-speaking West Africa, in Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon and Senegal. Rafale fighter jets can operate from mainland France. According to the foreign minister, Algeria has given full permission for its airspace to be used for bombing raids.
It was reported in October that France deployed spy drones to the area to monitor Islamist troop movements in northern Mali. The rapid success of its military operation — rebels are reported to be fleeing cities and towns and seek shelter in the desert — suggests that intelligence gathering in recent months was extensive.
Long-term success may be more difficult to achieve. While neighboring West African countries are scrambling to put together an expeditionary force to aid the French-Malian war effort, the rebellion — which includes jihadists linked to Al Qaeda, mercenaries who fled to Mali after the collapse of Muammar al-Gaddafi’s regime in Libya in 2011 and local Tuareg insurgents who seek independence — will probably be all the more difficult to put down once it has spread across a desert and mountainous area the size of France itself.