President François Hollande said on Friday that French forces in Mali will be drawn down to 1,000 by the end of the year. 4,000 French troops are currently deployed in the West African country to suppress an Islamist insurgency there.
In a television interview, the French leader said troop levels will be cut in half by July when presidential and parliamentary elections are scheduled to take place in Mali. He insisted that there was no preference for any candidate in Paris. “The days when France chose Africa’s heads of state for it are over.”
Hollande previously insisted that his soldiers would stay in Mali until sovereignty was restored. “There is still a whole part of the north that remains unconquered,” he said during a visit in February. Militants have sought refuge there since they were driven out of the cities and major towns in the center part of the country by French and Malian forces early this year.
France launched airstrikes against Islamic militants 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 rebels 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.
Meanwhile, the composition of the rebel alliance has shifted. Mainstream Tuareg secessionists, who seek a state of their own in the north of Mali, have joined the counterinsurgency against radical Islamists who hijacked their uprising last year. They count among their ranks members of Al Qaeda’s North Africa wing, the Tuareg group Ansar Dine and fighters that were displaced by Algerian counterterrorism operations and Arab and Western powers’ intervention in Libya’s civil war.
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 their jihad from neighboring Algeria, Mauritania or Niger. The Tuaregs, while nomadic, are bound to the land. A long-term political settlement will likely require increased 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 and has not announced an intention to stand for election in three months’ time, pledged in February, “Together we will hunt the terrorists down to their last hiding place.” His army wasn’t particularly discriminating in fighting Tuareg separatists and proper terrorists while restoring government control in Azawad, however. If Mali’s army seeks to drive the Tuaregs out as well, it might compel France to stay even longer.