15 Jan 2013

French intervention in Mali: what happens next?

Landing in Bamako, the capital of Mali, it’s hard to believe that this is a country at war.

Airport staff greeted us with their customary courtesy, as dozens of women in colourful dresses and butterfly headgear patiently queued outside to meet their family members arriving from Paris. The evening streets were quiet, as we drove past the yellow castle on the river which Colonel Gaddafi built as offices for the Malian government.

Yet many, if not most, people in Bamako have friends and relatives in the north where the fighting is taking place. Our driver’s sister is a nurse at the hospital in Gao, which has been under Islamist rule for the last nine months. He said that she told him there were far more dead than injured amongst the Islamists who’ve been targeted by French bombing raids for the past two days.

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The people of Gao stayed inside during the bombing, which destroyed the old customs house, part of the airport and other places which the Islamists had used as their headquarters.

People were especially happy to see that the police had been attacked. In recent months, the Islamist police in Gao have dragged suspected thieves and others to Sharia courts which have ordered the amputation of limbs and other punishments. Even smoking could earn you a flogging.

The Islamists have melted away into the desert or back into the population. They no longer control the city.

“Now the people of Gao are going out on the streets to have a smoke just because they can!” he said. “And women are going out without headscarves.”

The jihadi groups made the mistake of leaving the cover of the cities of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu and heading for Konna, south of their northern strongholds. When the French attacked Konna from the air, the jihadis had no choice but to flee, exposing themselves along the roads and in the open desert, allowing the French to bomb again.

What next?

Reconnaissance drones have been pinpointing their camps on the outskirts of the cities for months now so the French knew exactly the location of fixed positions.

What happens next? As long as the French are attacking from the air, backed up by Malian and French ground forces, the jihadis will flee or lie low. But you can’t bomb forever, and the reason the jihadi groups were able to take over in the first place is that the Malian government infrastructure was so weak.

What’s the stop them coming back in a few months time? They’ll mount guerrilla raids, or maybe use terror tactics such as bombings and assassinations.

The French President Francois Hollande has said the French will stay “as long as it takes”. But he hasn’t made clear what “it” is.

Does he mean driving the jihadis out, or keeping them out?

Presumably the French would like African troops, who are now readying to come to Mali, to be involved. But they don’t have the training, logistics, equipment or tactics to be effective in the harsh conditions of the Sahara, against a determined and ruthless enemy. The French may be here for longer than they would like.

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