France’s announcement that it will reorganize its deployment of thousands of troops across the Sahel region of Africa came as a blow to early hopes that security could be swiftly restored in northern Mali after last year’s Operation Serval. French Defense Minister Jean-Yves le Drian said on May 8 that despite assurances in 2013 that his country’s military intervention in Mali would be over in a matter of months
, 1,000 French troops will now remain in the country, down from what are thought to be about 1,600 French troops at present. A further 3,000 will be based in three other regional centers: Chad, Burkina Faso and Niger.
Maintaining the force is a bold move for France, which in recent years has preferred to provide support and technical training to African forces rather than commit its own troops to what could be viewed as neo-colonialist interventions. However, the French decision, which follows the U.S. deployment of about 100 soldiers to a new base for surveillance drones in neighboring Niger last year, is driven by facts on the ground.
“It seems as though the security situation in northern Mali is actually deteriorating,” says Sergei Boeke, a research fellow at the International Center for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague.
In recent weeks there have been regular reports of attacks on the northern Malian towns of Tessalit, Gao and Kidal. A French soldier was killed on May 8 after an explosive device went off under his vehicle, just weeks after a Togolese peacekeeper was seriously injured when he drove over a landmine on Kidal airstrip. The town of Gao has frequently been the target of rockets fired from a range of up to 18 miles, and France claimed to have killed 11 jihadists after heavy fighting in the desert in January this year.
Although France’s Operation Serval disrupted the ability of groups such as the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to mount large-scale attacks in the short term and broke their control of northern Mali, many of their fighters have simply melted back into the desert, where they continue to pose a threat.
Most analysts agree that some of these groups have moved into lawless southern Libya, which Le Drian recently called “a viper’s nest.” The militant leader Mokhtar Belmoktar—who broke away from MUJAO to found the “Signed in Blood” battalion that claimed responsibility for the In Amenas gas plant attack in Algeria in 2013 and twin suicide attacks in Niger one year ago—announced in late 2013 that he was forming a new battalion with a veteran of al-Qaida central that would target French interests across the Sahel.
“It’s all becoming quite predictable” says Boeke. “These groups are returning to their old practices of asymmetric warfare, and it’s looking more and more like a classic insurgency.”
Also driving France’s decision to maintain its military presence is disappointment with the speed of deployment of the Minusma U.N. force, which has been charged with stabilizing northern Mali. While Bert Koenders, the U.N.’s envoy to Mali, recently said he is confident that the force can get on top of the security situation, it is estimated only about 6,000 of a mandated 11,200 troops have arrived, and equipment is in short supply. Questions have also long been raised about the capability of soldiers from countries such as Niger and Burkina Faso in counterterrorism operations, and the European Union has felt sufficiently concerned to launch a training mission for the Malian armed forces.
The situation in the north is not helped by deadlock over talks to restore full government authority to the town of Kidal, which was taken over by the mainly Tuareg rebel group the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) when Operation Serval drove rival Islamist groups from the region. An agreement was signed between representatives of several Tuareg factions and the Malian government in Burkina Faso in June 2013 to allow national elections to be held, hastening the country’s return to civilian rule. But since then there has been little progress on broader negotiations to address Tuareg political and economic grievances.
In fact, the Tuareg rebels are deeply fractured, with three new groups now vying for the MNLA’s constituency—the Islamic Movement of Azawad, the Coalition for the People of Azawad and the High Council for the Unity of Azawad. Analysts suggest that there are differences among leaders over which side to ally themselves with in the bitter regional rivalry between Morocco and Algeria.
One Bamako-based journalist who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity also believes that the new government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, a firmly southern politician, is only “pretending at peace talks with the MNLA because of international pressure.” Many people in the south deeply resent the MNLA for plunging the country into chaos in early 2012 and blister at the long-standing demands by Tuareg groups for autonomy, which have been the catalyst for so many of the country’s current problems.
One small ray of hope appears to be the peaceful acceptance of Keita’s victory
in the 2013 presidential election, and the first shoots of political reconciliation at least in the south. IBK, as he is known, is a trusted and well-known politician with a flair for capturing the national mood who has been able to rally his constituency in the south toward a belief that the worst of the country’s problems are over.
However, while Mali has undoubtedly stabilized since the dark days of 2012, the long-running sore of Tuareg grievances in the north has not been adequately addressed and threatens to return the country to exactly where it was in the months leading up to the coup and Islamist takeover of the north. France’s announcement that troops will be permanently stationed there is a clear indication that Paris is not expecting a dramatic improvement anytime soon.
Celeste Hicks is a freelance journalist whose work focuses on Africa and the Sahel. She was the BBC’s correspondent in Mali and Chad from 2007 to 2010.