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February 03, 2013

Challenges Ahead for Foreign Troops in Mali

by Anne Look

In the past month, France has sent aircraft and boosted its ground troops in Mali to around 3,500 soldiers who have helped drive out al-Qaida-linked Islamist militants in the north.  Saturday, visiting French President Francois Hollande said French troops would not leave Mali until the situation is stabilized and a regional African force is ready to fight alongside the Malian army.  
 
French President Francois Hollande got a hero's welcome Saturday in the liberated northern town of Timbuktu. 
 
Hollande's visit marked an end to what French and Malian officials say has been a successful first phase of this now three-week French deployment to Mali. 
 
"The terrorist groups have been weakened.  They have suffered heavy losses, but have not disappeared.  So, what do we have to do?  We have to continue to pursue them.  France will stay at Mali's side as long as needed, meaning until Africans are ready to take over for us with the regional AFISMA force, but until then, we will be at your side, until the end, all the way to the north of Mali," he said. 
 
Soldiers from Chad and Niger are helping Malian and French forces secure parts of the recaptured north, a vast and notoriously difficult-to-police expanse of the Sahara.
 
About 8,000 African troops are heading to Mali, but most are not expected at the front before the end of February.  Analysts say those troops could be plunged into a nasty hit-and-run guerilla war for which neither they, nor the Malian army, are equipped or trained. 
 
France needed help from its allies to airlift its troops and supplies into the landlocked country.  Its advance in the far north was delayed by a sudden sandstorm. 
 
It is taking this French military supply convoy five days to make the 1,200-kilometer journey from Bamako to the liberated northern town of Gao. 
 
The convoy's commander, Lieutenant Emmanuel said, "Without these supplies, without this gas, the French troops cannot continue their offensive action.  So, we have to be on schedule and we have to bring these necessities so the forces can continue what has already been a rapid advance."
 
The convoy then had to stop for an extra day en route to outfit vehicles with electronic protection devices, after a Malian military convoy hit a land mine on the road near Gao, killing two soldiers.
 
These kinds of logistical challenges faced by French forces could be just a preview of what awaits their much-less-resourced African counterparts.  The speed of the French advance has left them little time for preparation. 
 
Many in Mali worry a hasty or premature exit by the French could spell disaster.