French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian shares this assessment. He describes the enemy as “agile, determined, well-equipped, well-trained and able to hide.” But they could not hide in the towns, where they have no support from the population who resents the sharia law the insurgents imposed at gunpoint. This utter lack of popular support explains in part why the militants melted out of the towns they thought they controlled.
The French had three objectives when they launched Operation Serval on Jan. 11: stop the Islamists' advance and prevent them from toppling the interim Malian government; preserve and recover the integrity and sovereignty of Mali; and accelerate the deployment of the United Nations-backed African-led International Support Mission in Mali (Afisma) and European Union Training Mission to Mali (EUTM Mali).
The first and third objectives were clearly met by the end of January. The second objective has been met in part: The integrity of the country has been recovered, but whether it can be preserved is another question, hence the importance of the Afisma deployment and EUTM.
The EU mission starts at the end of March. It will provide training and advice in unit capabilities (up to battalion size), command and control, logistics and human resources as well as international humanitarian law, the protection of civilians and human rights. Headquartered northeast of Bamako, the mission will comprise 200 instructors, plus mission-support staff and force protection, bringing total strength to 450.
“France's vocation is not to remain militarily engaged in Mali over the long term,” says French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. “It is up to Africans to ensure the security of Africa.”
The French have taken pains to ensure that Malian forces and other African troops officially liberate the towns from which Islamist insurgents fled. The presence of Malian troops, however, is often symbolic, as they are in no condition to be an effective force.
The French air force began with day and night airstrikes to the east and west of the Niger River at the bottleneck created where Mali turns sharply west and where the Islamic insurgents were gathering to march on Bamako. The French struck in the northeastern Gao region to destroy the insurgents' infrastructure, command and training facilities. French intelligence had spotted nearly 1,200 armed men, key leaders and more than 200 vehicles in the towns of Lere, Douentza and Kona.
The French army moved steadily north in a textbook mission that included a spectacular parachute drop of men and vehicles to ensure Timbuktu Airport was safe for transport planes to land. Nearly 40 aircraft took part in this operation, the biggest French airdrop since the Battle of Kolwezi in 1978, in the then-Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). The first phase of the operation culminated early this month with an overnight attack involving more than 30 aircraft (fixed- and rotary-wing) of 20 targets in and around Kidal, the last town held by the insurgents, 200 km (124 mi.) from the Algerian border and 1,150 km from Bamako.
France is the only non-African state to deploy ground troops. Togo, Nigeria, Niger, Burkina Faso, Benin, Senegal, Guinea, Ghana and Chad are sending troops within the framework of Afisma. But France has received logistical support from European countries and the U.S.: the U.K. provided two C-17s and a Sentinel R1 surveillance aircraft, and offered up to 40 personnel in a headquarters or training team role in the framework of EUTM; Denmark sent a C-130J-30 Super Hercules with 40 support personnel; Belgium, 75 military personnel with two C-130H transports and two medevac A-109 helicopters; Spain, a C-130 Hercules with 50 support personnel to help transport the Afisma force; the U.S., intelligence support and five C-17 Globemaster IIIs; and Germany, three C-160D Transalls and an Airbus A310.