By all accounts, France’s military intervention to prevent al-Qaeda seizing control of Mali has been a great success.Within a week of the deployment of around 2,500 combat troops, the French have now taken the historic Malian city of Timbuktu without a single shot being fired.
This is because, rather than stand and fight, the Islamist fighters who seized the city last summer have simply disappeared back into the desert whence they came.
This is very much in keeping with the tactic Islamist militants have adopted in various other conflicts, starting with Afghanistan, where the Taliban rely heavily on asymmetric tactics.
Rather than engaging Western forces in direct combat, where they risk facing the kind of devastating defeat the Mahdi’s followers suffered at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898, they prefer to melt quietly away so that they can live to fight another day.
Thus the next phase of al-Qaeda’s operations in Mali is more likely to take the form of suicide bombings and IEDs than direct confrontations with the French.
Indeed, once the French have finished with their mopping up operations, I suspect they will be keen to leave Mali as quickly as they arrived. The only problem with this otherwise laudable attitude is that if they leave before some semblance of political stability has been established in Mali, the country could quickly disintegrate into chaos.
Downing Street has said it will send around 350 military personnel to help train West African forces to take care of their own security. But this is not something that happens overnight.
The experience of Afghanistan is that it takes years, not months, to train local soldiers to a standard where they can look after themselves, but you get the feeling that neither Britain nor France have much of an appetite for committing themselves to Mali for the long haul.
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