French ground troops in Mali advanced north today toward the tiny hamlet of Diabaly, preparing to engage Islamic rebels in a shooting war whose duration and success are still a question mark.
What began as a limited air campaign last week to counter an ambitious rebel advance southward from strongholds in northern Mali may this week become a full-scale war.
The French are seeking to retake Diabaly from the rebels after the town of 35,000 fell last week and airstrikes did not check rebel advances.
"We will be fighting directly," said French military chief of staff Adm. Edouard Guillaud on Europe 1 television Wednesday. “I am unable to say whether it is in one hour or in 72 hours."
The French ground assault comes six days after French forces intervened with airstrikes as it appeared Islamist rebels captured Konna, a small town in central Mali close to the strategically vital cities of Sévaré and Mopti.
Despite initial statements by the Malian military that the French strikes drove the Islamists out of Konna, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said yesterday that Konna is still not under the control of the Malian army.
France’s intervention still enjoys broad support among the majority of Malians. But the optimism that defined the early days of the operation has now taken on a more cautious tone.
Both Malians and foreign analysts are grappling with the scale of operations thought necessary to retake northern Mali from the rebels – with many commentators questioning how France could have underestimated the strength of its adversary.
“From my experience, the French have always underestimated the threat [in Mali],” says Rudy Atallah, who served as Africa Counterterrorism director in the office of the US Secretary of Defense.
Mr. Atallah, who has extensive experience in the region, questioned optimistic military assessments predicated on the belief that the battlefield is the “flat and open” Sahara.
“We’re talking about a large geographic space and it is sad to see that some people think that there are no places for these guys to hide,” he says. “It’s not a force on force fight,” he says. “This is an insurgency war. It doesn’t take a lot of Islamists to create a lot of damage. They [the Islamists] are prepared for this."
Several days ago the rebels moved into Diabaly, a village about 215 miles from capital city Bamako after the days of heavy bombing in other locations in the north, including major population centers such as Gao, Douentza, and Lere.
The rebel capture of Diabaly served as yet another example of the Malian army’s inability to win a fight and renewed concerns that French air power in tandem with Malian ground forces would not be enough to stave off the Islamist push southward. Now many of the estimated 2,500 French troops largely based in the southern capital city of Bamako have been mobilized north to various locations in central Mali.
With the Malian and French militaries cutting off access to certain areas, and amid reports the cell towers have been taken offline or destroyed, almost no information is coming out of the cities of Diabaly or Gao, leaving many Malians to wonder if the Islamists are gaining the upper hand.
“Since yesterday, the network is down,” says Diabaly native Oumar Coulibaly, who works as an accountant in Bamako. “I don’t know anything, there is no information,” he says with frustration.
The Associated Press reports today that a “trickle of refugees left on foot from Diabaly, a town seized two days ago by the jihadists who have held onto it despite a punishing bombing campaign by French fighter jets,” and says the refugees arrived in Niono, a small town some 40 miles south of Diabaly, citing residents from Niono.
Ibrahim Komnotogo, a resident of Diabaly who heads a USAID-financed rice agriculture project with 20 employees, told AP that rebels have sealed off the roads and were preventing people from leaving, includes his charges. He was last able to speak to his employees on Tuesday, and had not had news of them since, after the telephone network was cut.
Likewise, Mohammed Toure, a native of Gao living in Bamako, told the Monitor, “I talked to my family on Sunday, but I have not been able to since then. I am scared because I don’t know what has happened, and with bombing, one never knows.”
When asked if he still supported France’s military intervention in Mali, Touré did not hesitate, "100 percent ... 100 percent.”
Some reports suggest Islamist rebels in the countrysides are embedding themselves within the civilian population, though the intelligence on this is varied, with some analysts saying villagers are apathetic or unhappy with rebels.