Now French troops are in Mali and troops from Mali's neighbors began arriving in Bamako this week, though it's still not clear how or when the African troops will go into action. France's ambassador in London, Bernard Emié, told the BBC on Monday that the African troops still require training and equipment. The jihadists, meanwhile, have counterattacked, taking another village in Segou province -- one of the first regions the Tukulor Empire conquered 165 years ago -- and pushing to within 300 miles of the capital. France's military action will test just how strong the jihadists are. According to French and U.S. officials, they are both well-trained and heavily armed, having captured equipment from the Malian army last spring and acquired additional weapons from Libya, itself awash in weapons after the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi. The officials say al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is also well funded, having raised around $100 million from kidnappings in Mali in recent years, including the kidnapping of a Frenchman near Mali's border with Mauritania in November 2012.
Mali today is a country of surprising reversals and disappointments. The splintering of the country began with a Tuareg rebellion in January 2011, the fifth such uprising since 1960. But the Tuaregs' push to establish their own state was derailed last summer by jihadist groups who were better organized and funded -- and the Tuaregs have since offered their support for the Malian government's struggle to drive the jihadists from the north. The uprising also led to the demise of Mali's 20 year-old democracy, when in March junior army officers unhappy with the government's inept handling of the Tuareg situation launched a coup d'état. The resulting chaos led to the collapse of Mali's army in the north, aided by the defection of entire Malian army units of Tuareg commanders and soldiers. In May, the junta in Bamako barely survived a second coup attempt by a paratrooper regiment loyal to the deposed civilian government. Days later, a mob of boys and young men stormed the presidential palace and beat up the junta's own puppet civilian president. Since then, the Malian junta and its civilian front men have waffled on accepting foreign military aid to oust the jihadists, insisting with wounded pride that the army can do the job itself.
Last May, I visited Col. Didier Dacko, commander of what remained of Mali's army, at the largest Malian army base along the border with the north. I asked him to respond to a quote I'd gotten from a Western diplomat in Bamako, who told me the Malian army has never been strong. "It is an army of farmers," the diplomat had said. Dacko shrugged when I read him the quote and replied, "Malians are not used to instability."
And he's right. Mali has been at peace since 1893 and now the jihadists have returned to stir the national memory. For the moment, Malians in the south seem to welcome the French intervention, though the legacy of colonialism has left many West Africans skeptical of just about anything Paris does. To this day, for example, many in West Africa and in Mali remember El Hajj Umar Tall not as a jihadist, but as an anti colonial crusader. It's hard to imagine French troops would be welcome for very long in Mali or anywhere. And the jihadists want to reinforce that point.
"France has opened the gates of hell," one Islamist leader in Mali, Oumar Ould Hamahar, a member of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, told Europe 1 radio in a phone interview in response to the French bombing campaign. "It has fallen into a trap much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia."
France has promised to stay in Mali until the country is stable again, but Paris has said that it wants to position African troops to do the heavy work of dislodging the jihadists from the north. Still, France may be unable to avoid a long engagement with its own military forces right out front. A French armored column has already rolled out of Bamako, headed for the north. Even with air strikes -- there have been more than 50 so far -- and French troops on the ground it will still be some time before an African force is ready for a major push. Taking back Mali's northern cities, such as Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal, may be the easiest task. Mali's vast northern desert is a hard place to live, not to mention wage war. For eight months a year, the daytime temperature exceeds 120 degrees Fahrenheit in a vast and unpopulated land that is easy to hide in, especially for the jihadist forces who know the territory well. Any army, no matter how large and well equipped, will have a tough time driving them out.
For now, it appears as if a piece of El Hajj Umar Tall's empire has survived after all.