Determined not to lose Mali to Islamist forces, France’s president Francois Hollande ordered a rapid deployment of air and ground forces in Mali to block well-armed and motivated fighters of the Ansar Dine movement led by the veteran Tuareg leader Iyad Ag Ghali from crossing the Niger river and marching on Bamako. Hostilities began with the seizure by Islamists of Konna, a pre-emptive strike against a French-led political-military build up in the region, whose explicit aim is to restore Malian sovereignty in the north, which was conquered last year when an alliance of Tuareg secessionists and Islamists loosely affiliated with al Qaeda drove out the U.S.-trained Malian army.

While Konna remains a battlefield, the enemy advance across the river appears to have been blunted, following repeated sorties by French Mirage fighters based in neighboring Burkina Faso; the jets also struck at Islamist rear bases in the eastern river city of Gao, taken by Ansar Dine and its AQIM (al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) allies last April, and other bases in Mali’s vast north, a region of predominantly desert and savannah terrain which the Tuareg claim as their historic Azawad (homeland).

The immediate French objective is to defend the Mopti-Sevare hub on the river, home to a military base and, more importantly, an air strip which the French need for their operations in the north. French forces reportedly also seized the air strip at Tessalit in the far northeast of Mali, and simultaneously convinced Algeria to let them use its airspace in conducting raids. This is no small feat on the diplomatic side, given Algeria’s fear of renewed French influence in the region.

However, AQIM claimed responsibility for kidnapping several French and Japanese oil engineers two days ago in Algeria’s southern oil fields, raising renewed fears that factions within Algerian security services are in collusion with the terrorists. The oil fields of the Algerian Sahara are protected by allegedly impregnable military defenses.

The initial successes of the French campaign suggest the French strategy is to contain the Islamist forces in the large expanse of the Mali “septentrion” (the north), then to figure out a way to conduct search-and-destroy missions – as Hollande himself stated (“destroy them or make them surrender”). This will ultimately depend on the cooperation of Algeria and Mauritania, neither of whom are members of the West African union (ECOWAS) whose members are formally on board with France. Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Niger, Senegal, Benin, Togo, and Cote d’Ivoire announced they would send contingents to reinforce a French expeditionary force expected to reach two thousand men by the weekend not counting air power. A Muslim Nigerian general has been tapped to lead the ECOWAS forces.

The U.S., which until the Islamist offensive a week ago was rather reluctant to speed up the liberate-northern-Mali campaign, gave its full support to the French counter offensive, with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta two days ago promising all support short of ground troop, as soon as the legality of U.S. involvement can be established. The French command has acknowledged that it needs U.S. surveillance and intelligence gathering capabilities, which is not without a certain irony given that the U.S. was by all evidence caught entirely by surprise when the separatist-Islamist conquest of northern Mali was launched in January of last year, despite several years of “partnering” with African militaries in general and Sahelian ones in particular.

French ground troops, which Hollande had emphasized throughout the fall and early winter would not be deployed in Mali, were very much in evidence in Bamako and around the western garrison town of Diabaly, which Ansar Dine and AQIM overran in an effort to draw French forces away from Mopti-Sevare, which is some 300 km away. The battle for Diabaly will be significant not only for the real estate that is at issue, but as a test of Islamist armaments, command and motivation, all of which reports indicate to be at a high level. It will also test the stated Mauritanian policy of using its forces to interdict and pursue all Islamist movements in the Malian west toward Mauitania.

A French general acknowledged that much of the Islamist power in Mali is a direct if unintended consequence of the Libyan intervention in 2011, which allowed Gaddafi’s Tuareg auxiliaries to abandon their paymaster with large stocks of modern arms and return to their ancestral homeland.

However, the Tuareg are divided both in their attitudes toward AQIM and in the purposes of their own revolt. Tuareg autonomist claims are as old as Mali – the French themselves entertained a project for an independent Tuareg state in the late 1950s but quickly shelved it – and rebellions in the north have punctuated the poor and landlocked and military-coup prone country’s history. The Tuareg, a Berber group with a reputation as masters of the deep Sahara, are better known for their proclivities as highwaymen than for their religious fervor. But the movement led by Iyad Ag Ghali attracted, with promises of bounty as well as appeals to faith, sufficient numbers of young men to its banner to give it the edge over the secularists of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad. The MNLA leadership and many of its fighters found refuge in Mauritania, from where they have offered to join in the fray on the French side.

There are, as well, Tuareg militia based in Niger who are opposed to their Islamist cousins and ambivalent about their separatist ones, preferring to talk about development aid for the north and reforms in its governance than independence. The Mali north is by no means an exclusive preserve of Tuareg tribes, and independence under their authority could trigger wars with Songhai groups. The Niger-based Tuareg are led by the redoubtable Alhaji Ag Gamou, who alongside Moor and Arab militias fought last year against the Ansar Dine-AQIM forces while the Mali army dithered in Bamako. They held Tessalit until they ran out of munitions and, following an attempted re-supply drop by the U.S. Air Force, made an orderly retreat into Niger.

There is a third Islamist factor, the MUJAO (rough translation: United Jihad and Faith Movement), largely composed of black Malians. While partaking of Islamist fervor, they resent the racist attitudes of the “whites” who lead the other formations. Historically, the Tuareg and other Saharan tribes oppressed and enslaved blacks whom they captured during raids in the borderlands between savannah and forest, and old feelings and behaviors endure despite the outlawing of slavery during the colonial period and again by the post-colonial states.

The color line in the Sahel is only one of any number of social and economic factors complicating France’s stated long-term goal, which is to establish conditions for peace, stability, and development throughout the region. These grand and abstract war aims represent our regional policy as well. Even prior to 9/11 and the war on terror we have, at least formally, sought ways of encouraging multi-national cooperation to insure trans-Saharan security. At the same time, we have promoted – evidently with little consequence -- good governance and economic and educational opportunities that would offer alternatives to the Islamist temptation in the Sahel. Our support for France’s campaign in Mali and the degree to which the countries of the region perceive our long-term commitment – including our ability to learn from past mistakes – will be, whether or not we want it, an index of our foreign policy serieux (as our next secretary of state might say) in the years ahead.

Next Page