France Stays Longer in Mali, Tuareg Join Fight

France continues to battle Islamists in Mali with the support of Tuareg secessionists.

A French air force pilot in Bamako, Mali, February 9
A French air force pilot in Bamako, Mali, February 9 (EMA/Ministère de la Défense)

France troops will likely remain in Mali for several more months to support local and neighboring armies in suppressing an Islamist insurgency in the north of the African country that was driven into the countryside last month by its military intervention.

One French diplomat told the Associated Press this week that the nation’s military presence is expected to remain for at least six months. Two other officials said that France’s participation in the counterinsurgency will last at least until July when it hopes Mali can hold elections, well beyond the March deadline that was originally set in Paris.

During his visit to Mali early last month, President François Hollande promised that his forces would stay in Mali until sovereignty was restored. “There is still a whole part of the north that remains unconquered,” he said after French and Malian soldiers had pushed the rebels out of the major cities and towns of the region. “We have not yet finished our mission. But we do not foresee staying indefinitely.”

Some 4,000 French troops are deployed to Mali. The country launched airstrikes against insurgents in its former colony in early January when they appeared to advance on the capital city Bamako. It followed up with ground deployments and expected a West African peacekeeping force, to be composed of up to 8,000 soldiers from neighboring countries, mainly Chad and Nigeria, to take over to prevent the Islamists from resurging.

However, the West Africans have struggled to organize their military operation. They will likely need more support from France and other Western nations to provide airlifts, ammunition, communications equipment and field hospitals to be able to mount an effective force for a prolonged period of time.

The rebels’ defeats appeared to split their ranks when more mainstream Tuareg secessionist groups joined the French-Malian effort to push the hardline Islamists out. The latter include the Tuareg movement Ansar Dine as well as members of Al Qaeda’s North African wing and affiliated extremists. Driven out of their urban strongholds, they seem to press on in the inhospitable terrain of northern Mali that is comparable in size of France itself.

The significance of this development should not be understated, writes Adam Garfinkle at The American Interest.

Until the 2011 war in Libya, when France and other Western powers intervened to help the opposition there topple the dictatorship of Muammar al-Gaddafi and inadvertently caused fighters and weapons to flood into Mali, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), as the north of the country is also known, “was the Tuareg rebel organization putting pressure on Bamako over many, many years,” according to Garfinkle. Their cause was hijacked by more radical elements last year but now those extremists have been marginalized, the movement “has put itself forward as a useful proxy of France in the hope that, when the war is over, it will become the main political force in the Tuareg areas of Mali.”

It is not a bad bet. The French, having hastily announced very expansive war aims, soon found themselves in a nasty fix: namely, without the means to achieve their ends. They certainly did not wish to police all of northern Mali themselves from now until eternity and the more realistic among French civilian and military decisionmakers had to understand fairly quickly that no African Union force could do the job either. And there stood the MNLA, Tuaregs prepared to do a deal.

Miguel Nunes Silva predicted this would happen in an article for the Atlantic Sentinel in October of last year.

By enlisting the support of NATO allies, notably the United Kingdom and the United States, France was able to “rid Françafrique of a dangerous regional influence.”

Gaddafi’s Libya had for years sponsored armed groups and political elites across French-speaking Africa and with him gone, so would his influence. Libyan involvement in Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Sudan was eliminated in one swoop.

The aftershocks were unpredictable “and Mali was certainly one of them.” The Tuareg had long claimed a homeland of their own and saw an opportunity to make use of the changed balance of power to press their case. But the groups that bolstered their effort had different aims. They sought to carve out an Islamist state in Mali.

“France and the West are now confronted with the need to support the Tuareg against Ansar Dine and thus further cement the secession of Azawad,” wrote Silva at the time, an imperative that now seems to bear out.

A long-term political settlement of Mali’s unrest will likely require a higher degree of autonomy for the Tuareg if not de facto independence. Which serves France’s interests as long as such a polity isn’t controlled by Islamists nor destabilizes the rest of Mali when the threat of Azawad’s secession did spark a military coup in Bamako almost exactly a year ago.