Analysis: French early strike shakes up Mali intervention plan

Sun Jan 13, 2013 2:10pm EST
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By Pascal Fletcher

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - France has rushed to help Mali block a push south by Islamist rebels from its desert north but a U.N.-backed intervention plan to dislodge al Qaeda and its allies faces a tough enemy and terrain and could still take months - if it succeeds at all.

The original timetable for the AFISMA intervention force of 3,300 West African troops with western logistical, financial and intelligence backing did not foresee deployment before September, to allow time for full preparation.

But this has now been accelerated by the rushed French response to a plea for help by Mali's government, after mobile columns of Islamist fighters last week threatened the central garrison towns of Mopti and Sevare, with its key airport.

With French jets and helicopters hitting Islamist positions in Gao and other rebel-held towns, West African regional grouping ECOWAS is now scrambling to get its troops onto the ground in Mali, raising questions about the long-term mission.

"Rushing into the intervention right now provides a shaky ground for the mission," said Martin van Vliet, a researcher at the African Studies Center at Leiden in the Netherlands.

"But doing nothing would have been a bad option as well," added van Vliet, who has also written about Mali for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point's Combating Terrorism Center.

Most experts agree that taking on several thousand fighters - a mix of Tuareg rebels, Islamists and foreign al Qaeda jihadists - in an inhospitable desert and mountain battleground the size of Texas is a huge military challenge.

"A massive, massive undertaking," was how one of the U.S. State Department's leading officials for Africa, Reuben Brigety, assessed the task facing Mali, ECOWAS and their western allies when he spoke at London's Chatham House in late October.   Continued...

French troops prepare to board a transport plane in N'Djamena, Chad, in this photo released by the French Army Communications Audiovisual office (ECPAD) on January 12, 2013. REUTERS/ECPAD/Adj. Nicolas Richard/Handout