DAKAR — The international community meets Friday in Bamako to work on the strategy for military intervention in northern Mali. France's defense minister says the intervention could happen in a matter of weeks, while others say the operation is months, maybe even a year, away.
The United Nations Security Council has been calling for months on ECOWAS to provide a more detailed plan for its proposed military action in northern Mali against the al-Qaida linked Islamists who seized control in April.
The Security Council has approved a resolution urging West African countries to speed up preparations for the intervention. ECOWAS and the African Union now have 45 days to present a plan.
The Security Council would then need to hold a second vote to decide whether to green light the operation. And that is assuming that it approves the proposal as is, and does not request further details or revisions. This could take weeks, if not longer.
And all of that is just to get the U.N. mandate for this internationally-backed, but African-led, operation.
So, why is the French defense minister saying the intervention could begin in a matter of weeks? Not months, he specified in a televised interview, weeks.
It could be viewed as France prodding African players forward or tough-talking al-Qaida militants currently holding six French citizens hostage in the Sahel. However, analysts say this more hawkish rhetoric is also aimed at bringing armed groups in northern Mali to the negotiating table, still seen by many, including the U.N., as the optimal solution.
Paul Melly, francophone Africa specialist at London-based think tank, Chatham House, said a gradual ECOWAS deployment backed by the international community is a powerful bargaining chip.
"It makes sense to constantly remind people that this is happening. That this is serious. This isn't just rhetoric, while actually doing it in a rather phased, deliberate way...I think the only way you'll get negotiations, is if you put that military chess piece on the board," Melly said,
Meanwhile, ECOWAS and Malian mediators could continue trying to bargain with the more amenable armed groups in the North, in particular the Tuareg rebel movement, the MNLA, and perhaps Ansar Dine, an al-Qaida linked Islamist group founded from within the Malian Tuareg community.
That strategy, analysts say, could at least isolate the more extreme, and often foreign, elements in the North, like al-Qaida of the Islamic Maghreb, for whom force may be the only answer.
Still, David Zounmenou, a senior researcher on the region at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, said the post-coup political power struggle in Bamako could undermine negotiations.
"You don't have a political coherence back in Bamako after the coup d'etat that took place on the 22nd of March, so if you don't have a coherent political transition in Bamako, no effort in terms of mediation will produce [results]," Zounmenou said.
Kwesi Aning, Director of Research for the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Center in Accra, Ghana, said ECOWAS realistically needs at least four months to get boots on the ground in Mali once it has the go-ahead from the U.N.
The risk of acting too fast and failing, he said, is just as serious as the risk of not acting at all.
"There are practical, technical reasons for it to take that length of time to put a credible force of 3,000 on the ground. We don't have combat aircraft. We don't have the goggles against the sandstorms. We don't have the appropriate boots and the clothing. Everything that ECOWAS troops will need in Mali will have to be requisitioned right from the start. And don't forget that most of the countries that have pledged troops don't have troops that are used to fighting in desert environments," Aning said.
France says it will provide logistical support, and the European Union is working on a plan to send military advisers.
So far, Nigeria and Benin are among the ECOWAS nations that have pledged troops. Other countries, like Senegal, have kept a lower profile following a threat by Islamists to attack any country that contributes.
There is also concern that military action could push jihadists and more refugees into neighboring countries.