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The remaking of Mali

By Pietro Musili in Bamako and Patrick Smith in Addis Ababa
Posted on Tuesday, 12 March 2013 11:54

Standing shoulder to shoulder against the jihadist insurgency on the tarmac at Bamako’s international airport, presidents Dioncounda Traoré and François Hollande must number among the world’s most improbable war leaders.

It was, Hollande effused, the “most important day” of his political life.

Both men, cautious and intellectual party managers thrust into the political limelight by catastrophe – a coup in Traoré’s case and the public disgrace of his party’s heir apparent in Hollande’s – are now running a war in northern Mali whose script is being revised almost daily.

All calculations changed on 10 January when the jihadists occupying the three main cities in northern Mali launched their southward march.

The long-debated intervention was no longer a theoretical case.

The military base and airstrip at Sévaré in central Mali were directly threatened. Some claimed Bamako would have been next.

The crisis triggered France’s intervention after discussions between Hollande and Traoré.

For diplomacy’s sake, Hollande followed with further calls to Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan and South Africa’s Jacob Zuma.

Both Traoré, a former mathematics professor, and Hollande, a star student at Paris’s prestigious École Nationale d’Administration, saw the intervention as imperative for regional security.

But it has also proved politically advantageous.

That was apparent when Traoré addressed the African Union’s (AU) special conference on Mali on 29 January in Addis Ababa.

With one bound he was transformed from a shaky civilian leader, under physical threat from the country’s bumptious junior officers, into a statesman defending national sovereignty.

After African, Asian and Western countries pledged $450m towards an African force for northern Mali, a polite queue of well-wishers formed to shake Traoré’s hand in the conference chamber.

Regional leaders, with Côte d’Ivoire’s President Alassane Ouattara and Nigeria’s Jonathan at the fore, banged the drum for Traoré and persuaded others such as the chair of the AU Commission Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn to back the cause.

That turned Bamako politics on its head.

Suddenly Traoré and his prime minister, Diango Cissoko, had real backing and credibility.

It was a narrow escape for Traoré.

Intelligence sources insisted that last year’s putschists, led by Captain Amadou Sanogo, had been planning another bid for power just as the jihadists started to move south.

That fell apart as France’s intervention was quickly followed by pledges to provide more than 5,000 troops from states in the region.


The blocking of Sanogo’s coup plans has not dulled his ambition.

His supporters launched an attack on a rival paratroopers’ unit, the so-called ‘red berets,’ which erupted in a fire fight near Djikoroni camp on 8 February.

It also raises questions about Sanogo’s putative role as overseer of the reform of the army.

So far, the intervention has sidelined Sanogo: key units in the Malian army moved up to the frontline in the north and others are being retrained by 400 military advisors from the European Union.

Yet this could still be unpicked by Sanogo if he chooses to play the spoiler.

Much will turn on the military campaign in the north.

The rapid French advance and taking of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal prompted France’s defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to speak of the mission’s “fulfilment” in tones reminiscent of George W. Bush after the initial phase of the Iraq war.

Hollande, well briefed by his military chief of staff Gen. Benoît Puga, qualified these assessments and reassured Traoré that French troops would stay as long as was necessary.

From the jihadists’ perspective, this is success of a sort.

It was never a viable strategy for them to sit tight in urban centres waiting for an inevitable counter-attack.

Instead, they have been able to draw in France’s military, and present it as an existential battle for the Muslim faith.

Most importantly for the jihadists, they have picked the battlegrounds.

Like their counterparts in Afghanistan and Somalia, they did not try to defend towns against superior air and ground forces.

Instead, they stockpiled fuel and heavy weapons outside them but near enough to Gao and Timbuktu, which they have continued to attack.

A couple of suicide bombings in Gao were followed by a lengthy shootout at a checkpoint in the centre of town.

The jihadists also have long established bases in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains near the border with Algeria.

All this will help their operations, even if they find their logistical lines back into Algeria are severed.


Assessments of the jihadists’ military strength vary markedly.

Last November, several intelligence estimates put the combined forces of Ansar Dine, the Mouvement pour l’Unicité et le Jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest (MUJAO) and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) at around 3,000.

By January that estimate had doubled, with some claiming the jihadists had more than 10,000 drawn from an international recruiting campaign.

Clearly the jihadists have suffered reverses since France’s intervention.

Anecdotal reports suggest that AQIM and MUJAO fighters retreated first, leaving the mainly Malian recruits in Ansar Dine to ….

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