With French airstrikes, has the war to retake northern Mali begun?

Today's expansion of the French air campaign beyond central Mali has left many wondering if the war has started – without much international coordination.

R.Nicolas-Nelson/AP
French soldiers get ready before boarding to Bamako, the capital of Mali, at Kossei camp in N'Djamena, Chad, Friday, Jan. 11. The battle to retake Mali's north from the Al Qaeda-linked groups controlling it began in earnest Saturday, after hundreds of French forces deployed to the country and began aerial bombardments to drive back the Islamic extremists from a town seized earlier this week.

France widened its military intervention in the African nation of Mali today beyond targets in the center of the country, sending fighter jets to the north to hammer training camps, infrastructure, and logistics depots used by Islamist rebels with ties to Al Qaeda

"The president is totally determined that we must eradicate these terrorists who threaten the security of Mali, our own country, and Europe," said France's Defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, on French television.

The French began airstrikes on Friday to counter an ambitious rebel advance southward from their strongholds in the north. While France's intervention appears to have the tacit support of the international community, the expansion of the French air campaign beyond central Mali has left many analysts wondering if a long-discussed war to retake northern Mali has begun in earnest – without much international coordination or planning.

“That’s the $64 billion question,” says François Heisbourg, special adviser at the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research. “I think all of this has happened so quickly between Thursday and today that the immediate objective of stopping the two [Islamist] columns and preventing the replenishment of the frontline [Islamist] forces has been the beginning and the end all of what the French are trying to do.”

For Ibrahim Touré, however, the answer is obvious. “It started this morning. It is war ... it is real war here,” says the resident of Gao, one of the cities being bombarded by French airpower. He has seen fixed-wing aircraft flying over the city and describes “big explosions” in the city and off in the distance. “Everyone is hiding, everyone is in their houses,” he says. 

The intense bombing comes three days after French forces had initially intervened early Friday morning in response to Islamist rebels capturing Konna, a small town in central Mali close to the strategically vital cities of Sévaré and Mopti.

French President François Hollande said his decision to intervene was made in consultation with Mali’s interim-President Dioncounda Traoré and regional allies, insisting that the actions were in accordance with international law and within the framework of the United Nations

African force planned for September

The UN Security Council passed a resolution last month authorizing the deployment of an African force to Mali, but African troops were not expected to arrive until September.

With Islamist forces pushing southward and the Malian Army unable to stop them, Mr. Hollande ordered his troops to take action amid fears that the rebels might continue on to Sévaré, which hosts a military base and nearby airport deemed critical to future efforts to retake northern Mali by force.

Northern Mali, a vast desert expanse roughly the size of Texas, has been under the control of Islamist rebels linked to Al Qaeda ever since the Malian Army lost control after a coup in the capital city of Bamako toppled Mali’s democratically elected government. 

Since then, foreign fighters have been pouring into northern Mali, linking up with Islamist groups and criminal networks that have netted tens of millions of dollars over the years through kidnapping and control of the drug trade. US and European officials have expressed public concern that the ungoverned space could become a launching pad for terrorist attacks abroad. 

Though the bombing campaign has repelled the latest Islamist push southward, few believe that airpower alone will be enough to uproot what many analysts consider to be a well-armed and battle-hardened adversary. 

Islamists surprisingly strong

In fact, a presidential official quoted by the Agence France-Presse said that French armed forces were surprised by the military capacity of the Islamist militants. 

"At the start, we thought they would be just a load of guys with guns driving about in their pickups, but the reality is that they are well trained, well equipped, and well armed,” the official told AFP. "From Libya they have got hold of a lot of up-to-date sophisticated equipment which is much more robust and effective than we could have imagined," he continued, alluding to weapons that were smuggled into Mali after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi

While the prospect of full-scale war against a capable rebel force looms over the region, questions remain as to how the future operations are likely to take shape. 

“My assumption is that that’s not the sort of thing that’s going to be done without a lot of consultation with the members of ECOWAS [a West African regional body] and those allies who are providing France with military support,” says Mr. Heisbourg, who also suggested that France will also be sure to consult Algeria, Mali’s neighbor to the north.

Several West African nations have already responded, with Niger, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, and other regional militaries pledging hundreds of troops. For its part, the Britain has sent a cargo plane to assist the French operation, but stipulated that it will not be providing troops, while the European Union has called for "enhanced and accelerated international engagement."

French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian also offered insight as to what US engagement might look like, telling French television that the "Americans are going to back up our operation in terms of intelligence and in terms of a support both for logistics and provisions."

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