African Forces Will Be Left To Hang On To French Gains In Mali

The first phase of the French-led military intervention in the West African nation of Mali — to drive out Islamist fighters — appears to be over. Experts warn that most of the African force is not combat-ready for the desert, and is nowhere near prepared to take over from the French.

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On a Thursday it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. The first phase of the French-led military intervention in Mali appears to be over. Radical Islamist fighters have been driven from the last major town they seized control of last year.

INSKEEP: France would like to step back now and play a supporting role for Malian troops and allied African forces. But as NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports from Mali's capital, the biggest challenges really begin now.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Retaking control of the major cities in northern Mali was dramatic and swift. The jihadis had imposed strict Islamic law in the vast territory they controlled. They have likely retreated into the vast sandy expanses of the Sahara Desert. To hunt them down, the coalition forces will have to take the fight into the dunes and mountains of the desert. Yet the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, is already talking about pulling out.

LAURENT FABIUS: French troops can help, but it belongs to African troops to ensure the bulk of the task and to ensure long-lasting security for Mali.

QUIST-ARCTON: A U.N.-approved African force already has boots on the ground, with troops coming from all over West Africa and from Chad. The force commander, Nigerian Major-General Shehu Usman Abdel Kader, says thousands of pan-African soldiers will be ready for combat duty very soon.

GENERAL SHEHU USMAN ABDEL KADER: We're hoping by the second week in February we'll be fully deployed.

QUIST-ARCTON: But experts warn that most of the African force is not combat-ready for the desert and is nowhere near prepared to take over from the French. Mali's own army, which staged a coup last March precipitating the takeover of the North, is demoralized, after humiliating defeats at the hands of well-armed Islamists.

ALEX VINES: I believe the French will have to remain in Mali for a significant period of time.

QUIST-ARCTON: Alex Vines is an Africa specialist and the regional and security studies' research director at Britain's Chatham House.

VINES: They will be the hard military guarantee in a way that we've seen elsewhere in the world, even with U.N. operations.

QUIST-ARCTON: Roland Marchal, senior research fellow at the Paris-based National Centre for Scientific Research, is also a specialist on sub-Saharan African conflicts.

ROLAND MARCHAL: There is a lot of optimism about the military situation, but I think there will be a waking call soon. And therefore the victory will appear as much fragile as it looks today. The challenges are many.

QUIST-ARCTON: Marchal says Mali and its partners must not forget political and social concerns. These include addressing regional grievances regarding the marginalization of the North and the lack of economic opportunities, including among separatist nomadic Tuaregs, who took up arms against the authorities. And both Vines and Marchal argue that Mali must soon hold credible elections and rebuild discredited institutions and the army.

MARCHAL: The question is whether the international community is able to provide an economic alternative for the population that basically has been able to survive because of those traffickings. If there is an economic alternative, then this population won't keep supporting jihadists.

QUIST-ARCTON: Concern is growing that the arid Sahel-Sahara regions of Africa have become a recruiting ground for Islamists and a haven for terrorism and drug and people trafficking. Mali argues that the threat is not just a Malian or African problem but a global concern that requires an international resolution. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Bamako.

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