French forces will remain in Mali until sovereignty is restored in the country and neighboring West African troops are able to take over the counterinsurgency effort, President François Hollande said on Saturday.
The French leader, who visited the Malian capital Bamako as well as the northern city of Timbuktu, which was conquered on the northern rebels less than a week before, said, “We have not yet finished our mission. But we do not foresee staying indefinitely.”
France’s foreign minister Laurent Fabius had said on Wednesday that the country would pull its troops out of Mali “quickly” after the Islamist insurgents had been driven out of the cities and main towns in the central and northern parts of the country.
Hollande cautioned on Saturday that while French and Malian soldiers had inflicted “heavy losses” on the rebels, the uprising wasn’t eliminated altogether. “There is still a whole part of the north that remains unconquered,” he said.
France launched airstrikes against insurgents in its former colony when they appeared to advance on the capital city three weeks ago. It followed up with ground deployments numbering over three thousand soldiers who were able to aid the Malian army in forcing the insurgents to abandon their strongholds and seek refuge in the northern deserts and mountain ranges.
A West African peacekeeping force, composed of up to eight thousand soldiers from neighboring French speaking countries, is supposed to prevent the Islamists from resurging in a territory that is comparable in size to France itself. While Hollande was hailed as a victor in the Malian cities he visited, West African nations still struggled to organize their military mission. Their effort is sanctioned by a United Nations Security Council resolution but they will likely need support from France and other Western nations to provide airlifts, ammunition, communications equipment and field hospitals to be able to mount an effective force.
A long term counterinsurgency effort is further complicating by splits within the rebel camp. What started as a struggle for Tuareg independence was hijacked last year by radical Islamist elements, including members of Al Qaeda’s North Africa wing and fighters that were displaced by Arab and Western powers’ intervention in Libya’s civil war and Algerian counterterrorism operations.
The Islamists seem less concerned about fighting for an independent state in the north of Mali, a region that is also known as Azawad, than controlling territory to impose sharia law. They can easily cross the border and continue the fight in neighboring Algeria, Mauritania or Niger. The Tuaregs, though nomadic, are bound to the land. If a permanent solution is to be found, it will likely have to include a greater measure of autonomy for this Berber people.
Mali’s interim president Dioncounda Traoré, who came to power after a brief military coup in March of last year, pledged on Saturday, “Together we will hunt the terrorists down to their last hiding place.” His soldiers haven’t been particularly discriminating in fighting Tuareg separatists and proper terrorists while restoring government control in Azawad in recent weeks, however. If Mali’s army seeks to drive the Tuaregs out as well, it could be in for a much longer fight.