The French-led military intervention in Mali is transitioning from an emergency operation to a stabilization force that permits France to reduce its footprint and empowers African forces and Malian political processes to take hold.
French airstrikes and a rapid deployment of ground forces have successfully defeated the attack on southern Mali by a group of jihadist forces, the most notable being al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. French-led military operations during the last week have recovered control of northern Mali’s three principal cities — Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal — inflicting significant losses on the jihadist fighters who, for most of 2012, used those cities as their bases in Mali.
The African International Support Mission to Mali is to number approximately 7,000 troops, drawn from countries in West and Central Africa. Units from Chad and Niger have deployed to consolidate security in Gao city, and the Chadians are also reported to be en route to Kidal to support the French special operations forces holding its airport. The utilization of Chadian forces, with whom the French have extensive experience and who have offered as many as 2,500 troops, will speed up the training of a capable force that interoperates with the French and other Western assistance.
With northern Mali secure, the French and other Western military forces will focus on special operations and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions to try to prevent jihadist forces from withdrawing to other sanctuaries. Containing jihadists to remote areas such as Mali’s Kidal mountains, then degrading their war-fighting capabilities, will be the next phase of Western military direction.
A political transition process will also be encouraged within Mali. The junta in Bamako will be urged to permit national elections. This will legitimize direct cooperation with the Malian regime by some Western governments, including the United States and Canada, who have faced legal prohibitions to intervene. But an elections process will also form part of a new political dialogue with Tuareg populations whose struggles in promoting and protecting their interests in northern Mali has engendered conflict between it and the Malian government. The political process will entail affirming Tuareg representation in Malian political decision-making, but at the same time ensuring that the Tuareg representation is constrained to non-violent cooperation with Bamako and a recognition of Malian territorial integrity. Militant Tuareg who continue an insurgency will be attacked by the interventionist forces, which could complicate Paris’ desire to transition from an emergency operation to a stabilization force.