Mali, one year later: France's mission accomplished – but much left to do

France's military efforts against Mali's Islamic rebels are widely regarded as successful, both in Paris and Bamako. But Mali remains mired in polarization, poverty, and corruption.

Charles Platiau/Reuters/File
French President Francois Hollande (l.) talks with Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, president of Mali, during a meeting with African heads of states in Paris in December.

French President François Hollande, who sent troops to Mali one year ago today to secure the west African nation from the threat of terrorists, essentially has declared the mission accomplished. This week he announced that France will reduce its troops by another third next month to some 1,600, saying, “we now have the situation in hand.”

But even if militarily France can declare success at the one-year anniversary of its intervention, Mali is still at a daunting crossroads: facing poverty, corruption, ethnic tensions, and violence that threaten to undo gains made to secure the country.

“The military objective was a success, but the situation is fragile,” says Antonin Tisseron, a research fellow with the Thomas More Institute in Paris who authored a report looking at the challenges Mali faces at the one-year mark. “Politically, there is everything left to do.”

'We don't have progression'

That sense of uncertainty is palpable in a place called “Little Bamako,” named after the capital of Mali, in Paris. It is a residence for Malians who have fled the country, located in an eastern suburb of Paris, but it's also a hang-out for the local diaspora.

The courtyard at the center of the low-level highrise is a bustling place. On a recent day, a young boy wearing a blue apron has his hair trimmed in a barber's chair set up at the edge of the enclosure. Around him, vendors hawk peanuts in their shells and piles of potatoes. A cafe off to the side is filled with men standing and eating their breakfasts: coffee and slim baguettes or croissants.

A year ago, when France intervened in Mali at the country's request, this place was brimming with relief, recounts Adama Dabo, a cafe patron and construction worker who has been in France nearly 30 years. Now, he says, people are much more tentative about what has been accomplished and how possible success is for the tasks ahead.

“I applauded when France intervened, just like everyone else,” he says. But now he looks wearily at his homeland: a place with continued threats of violence, a lack of infrastructure and industry, and political tensions that have failed to find meaningful solutions. “We don't have progression,” Mr. Dabo says.

A popular mission

France's leaders have focused on what has been accomplished in the year since the mission – dubbed Operation Serval – sent 5,000 troops to battle al Qaeda-linked rebels in Mali's north. The rebels had gained strength due to the political instability that followed a coup in March 2012.

On a New Year's visit to Mali, France's Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the country was “liberated” – a view widely shared by the international community, including Malian central authorities. “A year ago, they were torturing people and chopping off hands here,” he said.

Operation Serval did help undo the jihadi infrastructure in northern Mali, with several hundred extremists killed or having surrendered. The operation netted logistics warehouses, weapons caches, and training centers. Another turning point in Mali was the national election this summer that ushered in the presidency of Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.

The intervention was widely supported by Malians, who hailed the arrival of troops, as well as the French public. “The intervention in Mali, a great success for France” is the title of a recent piece by defense analyst Jean-Dominique Merchet in his blog Secret Defense, summing up the majority mood. “A year ago, Mali was a country in complete downward spiral,” he writes. “In the first days of 2014, the situation is radically different.”

It continues to be one of the sole popular actions that President Hollande has taken since he became president in May 2012. The French polling firm BVA released a survey in April, three months after the intervention, asking respondents what actions the president has taken that will have an important impact, and Mali ranked no. 1, at 63 percent.

Support for French action has remained high, even after the deaths of French troops – seven were killed during Operation Serval – and two journalists who were ambushed and killed while preparing a report for Radio France Internationale (RFI) in November.

What's next?

That tragedy raised questions about how lasting the peace will be in Mali. Some jihadist groups have regrouped, revealing the fragile security situation, says Mr. Tisseron. And some 1,000 French troops are expected to stay long-term, working along side UN and African-trained forces.

But Tisseron says that beyond security, rebuilding Mali is the next – and more pressing – challenge. The political differences that led to the March coup still remain deeply entrenched, and Mali is mired in poverty and corruption.

Koly Traorre, the barista at the cafe in “Little Bamako,” says the country needs continued international support, whether from French forces or the community at large.

“The country is not stable, especially the north,” he says. “The north deserves to be free, like any place else in the world.”

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