Fifteen days ago I reported on the French intervention in Mali, Operation Serval, and the progress they have made in that time. Since January 14th, French and Malian forces have taken back two of the remaining major urban centers in Northern Mali: Timbuktu, Gao, and are on the verge of recapturing the distant Northeastern town of Kidal.
France has also increased the troop presence from roughly 400 troops on the ground three weeks ago to roughly 2,100 as of January 30th with another 1000 supporting from neighboring countries. The Islamists have now been pushed back to their Saharan desert hideouts – a portion of Mali the size of Texas.
The issue at hand is that the French government has already declared that this was going to be a quick campaign to retake the North and hand over the reigns to the Mali government. With the remaining cities taken from the Islamists, there is little left for French troops on the ground. The French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has already declared that their soldiers will be pulled out of Mali very soon. The original plan was to recapture territory, not to eradicate the threat of AQIM and their allies. France has no desire to undertake a counter-insurgency campaign throughout the Saharan desert.
I’ve been following the operation carefully and certain red flags have arisen. The first is the obvious: where are the French and Mali combat casualties? Aside from the helicopter pilot killed during the opening day of the conflict there have been no reports of any KIA nor even any French wounded. This tells me that the Islamists gave up the cities without a fight in order to retreat to their sanctuaries. Timbuktu, a city of 30,000 people was recaptured with “no resistance” on January 27th according to French officials. Kidal in the Northeast was captured by the rebel Tuareg movement from the Islamists and welcomed the French soldiers as they landed at the airport. Gao, a city of 50,000, was also retaken by allied forces and the only reported combat by the French was a short firefight that left 15 Islamists dead as friendlies approached the city.
This may seem like a positive outcome to the mission but the Islamists know that France has two objectives: to halt the militant advance to the South and to retake population centers in the North. Both objectives have been accomplished and French ground forces will be pulling out in the very near future. Once this happens the thousands of enemy fighters who ran away in the Northern desert will likely counter-attack and drive back the Mali government troops just as they have done in the past.
It’s going to be up to Malian and coalition African forces to move into the Sahara and hunt down the militants. Hopefully with the air power and surveillance capabilities of France and other allies.