Updated Friday, January 25, 2013 at 11:40 AM
DIABALY, Mali –
When France entered the world’s newest war against terrorism, French officials boldly declared that the ragtag radical Islamists they planned to oust from northern Mali would scatter in the face of a modern fighting force.
Two weeks later, reality has sunk in. Even as they bombard Islamist targets, the French troops are facing a military landscape far more complicated than it appeared at the outset, raising questions about France’s long-term goals.
With no clear exit strategy, the French are encountering a variety of problems: Mali’s interim government is weak, its military is disorganized and a long-promised African-intervention force is far from ready.
Even as French troops worry about killing civilians, it is unclear who the civilians are and where their sympathies lie. Ethnic, religious and regional rivalries — as well as old and unsettled vendettas — also are posing obstacles.
The Malian army, which France sought to bolster with its action, has been accused of committing abuses, particularly against the Tuareg ethnic group, some of whose members started the March rebellion that has divided the West African nation. That could erode popular support for the military intervention here and in France, and it could complicate France’s ability to recruit secular Tuareg militias to battle the Islamists.
On Thursday, a new Tuareg militia emerged as Ansar Dine, one of three groups fighting in Mali, split. The new group, led by Tuareg leader Alghabass Ag Intalla, calls itself the Islamic Movement for the Azawad and says it is ready to negotiate.
French soldiers also could get caught in the middle of growing tensions between the lighter-skinned Tuaregs, who are from the north, and black Malians from the south, who run the government and the military.
“It’s hard for the foreigners to know who is helping the Islamists and who are not,” said Demba Diarra, 82, a tribal leader in a town near Diabaly. “It’s so complicated.”
France decided to intervene in its former colony after the Islamic fighters, who seized the northern half of Mali nine months ago, suddenly decided to push farther south, triggering fears the Islamists could seize the rest of the country. The potential outcome was “a terrorist state at the doorstep of France and Europe,” French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said. France also acted because it has some 6,000 citizens in Mali, a former French colony.
Already, French forces have faced immense difficulties in dislodging the Islamist fighters from two central Malian towns, Konna and Diabaly. In both cases, senior French and Malian officials explained away the problems by saying they wanted to avoid civilian casualties.
But community leaders and residents in Diabaly and surrounding areas offer a more complex portrait of the obstacles faced by France, including Islamist sympathizers and enemies of Mali’s military.
The concerns arise as the first criticisms of French President François Hollande’s decision to send troops have emerged in Paris, a rupture in what had been unanimous endorsement. Although polls still show 65 to 75 percent support for the move, the political sniping has betrayed doubts about the length of France’s involvement.
Jean-François Copé, the conservative opposition’s pugnacious leader, was the first off the blocks. In a National Assembly debate, he said he and his opposition colleagues were worried to see France “so alone” on the ground despite plans for a Pan-African force and promises of training by European Union military officers.
France’s strategy was — and officially remains — to secure Bamako, Mali’s capital, and the southern third of the country, and then hold back on the ground while African troops, backed by French air power, recapture the Islamist-controlled northern cities of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal, French officials said. But that has become a more difficult and longer-term proposition. The African force, they acknowledged, is far from ready to assume its planned role.
About 1,000 African soldiers from five countries have been sent to Mali, out of the more than 3,000 planned, according to the French Defense Ministry. Their European Union trainers are nowhere to be seen except on the drawing board.
Against that background, specialists in Paris have begun to suggest French forces should push northward and secure the region’s main cities rather than sit idle on the new front line waiting for the Africans. But after the cities, the question would become: What about the countryside?
“The fear of a new Afghanistan is haunting people’s minds,” wrote Yves Thréard this week in Le Figaro newspaper.
Konna was recaptured only last weekend, despite 10 days of bombing. Similarly, a column of French armored-personnel carriers entered the city of Diabaly, which was captured by the jihadists three days after the military intervention began, only Monday.
“The war against the Islamists is not at all easy, and there’s a very small part of the population which is helping their cause,” said Lt. Col. Seydou Sogoba, the Malian force commander in Niono. “That is what is making the fight against them tough.”
What happened in Diabaly last week shows how old animosities, religious divides and the unpopularity of Mali’s military could haunt the French in the weeks and months ahead.
Malian soldiers in the desert town stopped a truck coming from neighboring Mauritania carrying 17 preachers, all members of Dawa, a nonviolent Islamic sect. The soldiers sprayed bullets into the vehicle, killing all but one of the unarmed preachers, according to residents and human-rights activists.
Residents say the deaths were one reason the jihadists targeted the town.
“Some people say it was a kind of revenge for the Dawa preachers killed by the army,” said Adbullahi Dagnon, the interim tribal chief of Diabaly.
Some residents voiced support for the jihadists.
“They didn’t do anything wrong to the population,” said Sisogo Khailoou, standing near a house were the jihadists had kept weapons and ammunition. “They just came here to rob the bank and take the army’s stuff.”
The Tuaregs would be vital to helping the French navigate the vast and inhospitable desert terrain of the north, gather intelligence and gain the support of local populations. But many in the Malian military have not forgotten that Tuareg fighters, who had just returned from Libya with an ample stock of weapons and pickup trucks, had pushed the army out of northern Mali.
“You can’t trust someone who is fighting against you,” Cpl. Mamadou Kone, a Malian soldier in Diabaly, said of the Tuaregs.
Material from The Seattle Times archive is included in this report.
In this 2012 photo, fighters from Islamist group Ansar Dine stand guard in the desert outside Timbuktu, Mali. It has split as of Thursday and leader of the Tuareg spinoff has said it is ready to negotiate.