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Who should take over in Mali? That question is before the international community now that French and Malian government forces have retaken northern cities from Islamic insurgents. It's been three weeks since the French stepped in. Now they're looking for an exit, and getting out will not be as easy as dropping in.

The French have said it will be up to African forces to take over as they step back. But today, the French defense minister also endorsed the idea of a United Nations peacekeeping force. Here to talk more about the next step in Mali is Rudolph Atallah. He is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Africa Center. Welcome to the program.

RUDOLPH ATALLAH: Thank you.

CORNISH: Now, first, it appears that in the end, Islamic militants didn't put up that much of a fight. The French were able to make a lot of progress very quickly. But I've also read that people think that these militants may have retreated into the desert or into villages. So how big a concern is it that they'll just rebound once the French leave?

ATALLAH: I think it's a major concern, and the reason why is, from the time the militants took control of northern Mali in June of last year to the French intervention, they were prepping themselves for an insurgency war. So some of them have fled into the hills, into the northeast quadrant of Mali, some have fled probably across the border into Algeria, and some have gone westward towards Mauritania. So they're - they've atomized themselves in the region. Now as France draws down or pulls back and the African-led intervention force remains, we may see an uptick of insurgency-type operations against these forces.

CORNISH: You talked about African-led forces, but help us understand. In an African-led coalition, which countries are we talking about? What are some of the concerns there?

ATALLAH: The countries that'll be involved primarily would be West African countries, countries like Nigeria, Niger, Senegal, all contributors to Mali's intervention operation. In terms of ethnic tension, some of these countries like Niger or Chad have had some differences with ethnic groups from the north - in the case of Niger, like the Tuareg.

So anytime there's been a rebellion or a Tuareg uprising in Mali, shortly after there was one in Niger. So as these contributing countries go into Mali, there's got to be some concern taken over causing some additional flare-up or tension with the Tuareg that are in the north that see this as a threat.

CORNISH: So, today, it appears that there's talk at the United Nations of a broader U.N. peacekeeping force rather than just this African-led coalition. I mean, is that any better? We know that, of course, the French defense minister seemed to like it.

ATALLAH: Sure. And the reason why is he's looking for additional donor nations and funds for this operation so France can slowly pull out and take a more of a backseat role in the operations going forward. But the U.N. is very busy right now with other places to include Somalia, where they're seeing some successes. So it may be an uphill battle for France to kind of win that fight, but it may happen.

CORNISH: Can the French simply pull away from this? I mean, can they extricate themselves so simply?

ATALLAH: That's a great question. France has made it clear that they wanted three things. Number one was to protect their citizens in Mali and in the region. Number two, to push back the Islamists to the north. And number three, create enough space for the intervention force to come in and take over so they can slowly withdraw out.

But I think what's going to happen in the long term is, God forbid if there's any retaliation against the French, then that's going to draw the French further into the fight versus allowing them to pull out and stay out of the fray.

CORNISH: Rudolph Atallah is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Africa Center. Rudolph, thank you so much for talking with us.

ATALLAH: Thank you.

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