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Feb 4, 2013 | 14:30 GMT

Mali: The Conflict Enters a New Phase

ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images
Summary

Now that French forces have fended off a jihadist push into southern Mali and have driven militants out of northern Mali's main population centers, the Malian conflict appears to be entering a new phase. During this phase, France will make way for African forces and will put renewed focus on re-establishing the Malian democratic process and spurring negotiations between Bamako and Mali's Tuaregs. The coming weeks and months will entail an intervention largely in line with what was planned before the militants' own offensive, which prompted the French intervention.

Meanwhile, militants are withdrawing to mountainous regions, where they will maintain the ability to mount an insurgency that could threaten military forces and civilians in northern Mali. Offensive military operations will continue to try to degrade and disrupt al Qaeda-linked groups and prevent them from fleeing farther to Algeria, Niger and Libya. 

French forces took control of Gao and Timbuktu using air assaults and parachute jumps while special operations forces in Kidal established contacts with the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, which entered Kidal after jihadist militants fled the town. France then needed four days to expand its control of central Mali to include the two major towns on the Niger River as well as Kidal in the north. Over the weekend, French special operations forces engaged jihadist elements on the ground as French air assets bombed locations near Tessalit and Aguelhok, north of Kidal. The intensity of ground combat north of Kidal has already prompted France to move more special operations forces to the town's edge by plane, with combat helicopters deployed in support.

An Upcoming Transfer of Responsibility

France has achieved full control of the territory it wanted to secure — an area consisting of central Mali and the three main population centers north of the Niger River — before it would transfer operational responsibility to African forces. France already has discussed decreasing its presence in Mali as a part of that transfer. The French air force and special operations forces, as well as logistical units, are likely to continue supporting African forces in Mali and will also probably conduct their own operations against remaining al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb elements in the mountains north of Kidal and against pockets of militants who may have covertly stayed behind in other areas.

The African military forces, which will eventually comprise 7,000 troops from outside Mali, will assume responsibility for the security of cities and will defend those cities from insurgents and jihadists. France is planning to have its troops leave the town of Timbuktu this week, and troops from Chad and Niger have already been moved north of the Niger River into Gao region to support French and Malian troops.

Among other movements, a Chadian convoy has linked up with French forces in Kidal, where they conduct security patrols. Malian troops are not active within Kidal — the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad has said it will not allow Malian troops inside the town — but they are present at the airport and have joined French forces in operations north of Kidal. The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad and the Islamic Movement of Azawad, as non-jihadist Tuareg organizations, could play an important part in re-establishing dialogue between Bamako and the Tuareg factions. They are also trying to prove instrumental as they operate against jihadist elements in the mountains north of Kidal, where they have reportedly arrested Mohamed Moussa ag Mouhamed, a senior leader for Ansar Dine, and Oumeini Ould Baba Akhmed, a leader of a jihadist group called the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa who allegedly organized the kidnapping of a French citizen.

Jihadists Prepare for the Next Phase

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa and Ansar Dine had already prepared defensive positions in the mountainous area north of Kidal before the French entered Mali. As they withdrew to those positions, militants attempted to slow down the French by destroying a bridge south of Gao and blocking the Timbuktu runway with obstacles. The first reports have now surfaced about mines or improvised explosive devices placed along routes in central Mali; such devices may have been left throughout the region where the militants were active.

In their mountain bases, the jihadists have supply-filled tunnel networks that protect them from observation and strikes. Their main attack methods now would be using improvised explosive devices, ambushing transportation nodes, or bombing civilian or military targets. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb also still holds several hostages, who could be used for leverage or as shields. France believes these hostages may also be held in the mountains north of Kidal. In addition, covert jihadists still present in formerly occupied areas could execute attacks if they have the cooperation of local populations.

The Obstacles to Long-Term Stability

While short-term military operations against the jihadist militants in northern Mali have been successful so far, a long-term solution for stabilizing Mali will prove more complex. Bamako's military government came to power after a coup, itself a reaction to the inability of the government to repel the Tuareg offensive in northern Mali. The government will now try to accommodate local stakeholders in northern Mali. Moreover, now that the military emergency has subsided, military leaders will be under pressure from both the Malian population and its foreign partners to start organizing elections.

These elections are critical to some Western governments, including the United States and Canada, and to some African governments. For legal reasons, the Western countries cannot cooperate directly with the regime in Bamako, since the government came to power through unconstitutional means. Meanwhile, African nations such as Nigeria do not want their own domestic armed groups to be encouraged to launch coups.

Bamako could try to emulate neighboring countries Niger and Mauritania, where juntas came to power through coups and held elections a year later, leading to resumed military cooperation. Western military support is instrumental in guaranteeing a long-term solution to the security challenges that have long-plagued northern Mali. This solution partly will be secured through dialogue with Tuareg factions, but the existence of an efficient security apparatus will eventually be necessary for the state to prevent a future crisis.

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