Mali: Is France entering a desert quicksand?

This conflict could prove far more intractable than Western powers and West African backers anticipate.

As French troop reinforcements pour into Mali, there is concern in Western capitals that the engagement in this vast desert country could be more difficult and more protracted than many imagine.

At present the French have deployed 1,400 troops. France’s defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, told journalists: “There was combat yesterday, on the ground and from the air. There was more overnight and it is continuing at this moment.”

Their troops have the backing of the United Nations, as well as the West African regional grouping, ECOWAS.  Soldiers from the region are – after considerable delay – finally being deployed. Some 2,000 are promised by Chad and the first of Nigeria’s contingent of 900 troops are expected to arrive on Thursday.

When they can be readied, 3,300 West African troops should join the French in bolstering the poorly motivated, poorly led Malian army in their fight against the rebels. A range of European countries, Britain among them, have promised logistical support and training.

This appears to provide the French with the overwhelming force needed to take on the Islamists rebels, who now control Northern Mali.  But some in the diplomatic community worry that this may prove illusory.

The three rebel movements, Ansar Dine, Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim) are tough, mobile and well-versed in desert warfare.

They have also considerable resources at their disposal.  Between them they are estimated to have extracted €40m over the last three years from a series of kidnappings.  Tobacco smuggling has bolstered their funds. This has provided them with the funds to purchase weapons from international suppliers.

It is not clear which source they turned to, but the usual channels are suspected. Former Eastern block countries head this list. These include Ukraine and Belarus. Vladimir Peftiev, who previously headed the Beltech Holding, a group of Belarusian arms producers and traders, last year had his assets frozen in Europe and was barred from entry. Iran, recently named as an exporter of ammunition to Africa, could be another source.

Military analysts are concerned about the downing of a French helicopter in Mali. The French military have so far refused to explain how it was destroyed, but there are suspicions that it was hit by a surface-to-air missile. If this is true, then the rebels pose a threat to French air-superiority.

But perhaps the most worrying element of the rebel strategy is their ability to blend into the local population. There are suggestions that the Islamists have begun to move families out of their homes in areas they control, so that they can assume the guise of local civilians, if the towns and villages are overrun.

Islamist fighters are deploying child soldiers and using the population as a shield against the offensive, a Malian army source told Agence France Presse. These people (the Islamists) have two strategies: using the population as a shield and child soldiers as fighters," the military leader said on condition of anonymity.

The vast wastes of the Sahara and the mobility of the fighters will make the rebels a tough enemy to dislodge. France, and its Western and West African backers, may have to prepare themselves for a long, difficult conflict.

 

A picture taken with a mobile phone reportedly showing Islamist insurgents in Gao. Photograph: Getty Images

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

Photo: Getty
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What does François Bayrou's endorsement of Emmanuel Macron mean for the French presidential race?

The support of the perennial candidate for President will boost Macron's morale but won't transform his electoral standing. 

François Bayrou, the leader of the centrist Democratic Movement and a candidate for the French presidency in 2007 and 2012, has endorsed Emmanuel Macron’s bid for the presidency.

What does it mean for the presidential race?  Under the rules of the French electoral system, if no candidate secures more than half the vote in the first round, the top two go through to a run-off.

Since 2013, Marine Le Pen has consistently led in the first round before going down to defeat in the second, regardless of the identity of her opponents, according to the polls.

However, national crises – such as terror attacks or the recent riots following the brutal arrest of a 22-year-old black man, who was sodomised with a police baton – do result in a boost for Le Pen’s standing, as does the ongoing “Penelopegate” scandal about the finances of the centre-right candidate, François Fillon.

Macron performs the most strongly of any candidate in the second round but struggles to make it into the top two in the first. Having eked out a clear lead in second place ahead of Fillon in the wake of Penelopegate, Macron’s lead has fallen back in recent polls after he said that France’s rule in Algeria was a “crime against humanity”.

Although polls show that the lion’s share of Bayrou’s supporters flow to Macron without his presence in the race, with the rest going to Fillon and Le Pen, Macron’s standing has remained unchanged regardless of whether or not Bayrou is in the race or not. So as far as the electoral battlefield is concerned, Bayrou’s decision is not a gamechanger.

But the institutional support of the Democratic Movement will add to the ability of Macron’s new party, En Marche, to get its voters to the polls on election day, though the Democratic Movement has never won a vast number of deputies or regional elections. It will further add to the good news for Macron following a successful visit to London this week, and, his supporters will hope, will transform the mood music around his campaign.

But hopes that a similar pact between Benoît Hamon, the Socialist Party candidate, and Jean-Luc Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the Left Front’s candidate, look increasingly slim, after Mélenchon said that joining up with the Socialists would be like “hanging himself to a hearse”. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.