Has France Won in Mali?

02/10/2013 04:19 pm ET | Updated Apr 12, 2013

France's recent military intervention in Mali halted an apparent push toward Bamako, the country's capital, by the hard-line Tuareg Islamists who for months had ruled Mali's vast northern region. French President Francois Hollande acted after a frantic Malian government pleaded for help on January 10, no doubt realizing that its army, which is in a chaotic state, was incapable of stopping the advancing insurgents.

The French used airpower to halt the Islamists' offensive and then deployed ground troops, who moved into northern Mali, accompanied by Malian forces. Although France received logistical and intelligence support from Britain and the United States, it has done the heavy lifting.

The Islamists were quickly expelled from the key northern towns of Gao, Kidal, and Timbuktu. Crowds, joyous at having been freed from the yoke of the Islamists -- who enforced their interpretation of shari'a law with gruesome punishments, such as public amputations and stonings -- chanted "Vive la France!" President Francois Hollande, whom many had considered a softie, has been lauded for his courage and received a hero's welcome when he visited Mali earlier this month.

All of this was achieved in less than three weeks -- and with the loss of only one French soldier, a helicopter pilot.

Yet Hollande understands that French citizens' enthusiasm for the Mali campaign could prove short-lived if it turns into an open-ended fight that starts consuming blood and treasure. That's why he and the French Defense Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, have stressed that France will transfer the mission to the Malian army and troops from some of the other 14 states that comprise the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). ECOWAS has pledged 6,000 troops, Chad another 2,000, and a move is afoot to have this combined force operate, throughout Mali, under UN aegis and with financial support from international donors.

This appears to be plan. But it remains unclear whether these African troops will be capable of handling the Islamists if they reemerge from the deserts and mountains, where they sought refuge rather than choosing the fool's errand of fighting French forces head on. It may have been ECOWAS's failure to muster the unity needed to mount its anticipated operation to retake northern Mali that emboldened the Islamists to make the move that prompted France's intervention.

There's particular reason to be skeptical about the Malian army. Not only was it unable to prevent the Tuareg fighters from taking the north a year ago, some 1,600 of its soldiers defected to the insurgents, taking their weapons with them. Moreover, it has a history of human rights abuses and factional infighting. Thus, even with European Union military specialists now on hand to train the Malian military, there's good reason to wonder whether it will be up to the job.

The Islamists will be back; Friday's suicide bomb attack against Malian troops in Gao may be an ominous bellwether. French airpower, based in Chad and the Ivory Coast, could again be used if the African forces run into trouble, but the real question is what France will do if aerial assistance proves insufficient.

The political dimension of Mali's crisis may prove more significant than what happens on the battlefield. The Tuaregs of the Sahel have been battling for independence ever since the France began relinquishing its empire in northern and western Africa, starting in the 1950s; indeed, they revolted even during the colonial period. There have been three Tuareg rebellions in Mali since it became independent in 1960, and the foray into its northern areas by armed Tuaregs who fled Libya after Mu'ammar Qaddafi's fall at the end of 2011 is but the latest.

After the Tuareg fighters drove the Malian army from the north last year, the nationalists (the National Movement of the Liberation of Azawad, or MNLA) and the Islamists (Ansar Dine) split. Ansar prevailed and rapidly established a quasi-state. Now, with France having routed the Islamists, the MNLA has announced that it will cooperate with France and the Malian government to prevent Ansar al-Dine's return, but the group will surely seek far-reaching autonomy for the Tuaregs in exchange, as will the Islamic Movement of Azawad, which defected from Ansar Dine and claims that it too is ready for negotiations.

But the Malian government, weak and disunited, may prove unable to take advantage of these divisions to marginalize Ansar by reaching an autonomy agreement that is acceptable both to the Tuaregs and to southern Malians. Already, the idea of negotiations with the MNLA has encountered opposition in southern Mali. Or Mali's leaders may conclude that they don't have to make such deals because they have the upper hand now that the French have chased the Islamists from northern cities.

Either outcome will prevent lasting peace, which depends on the Tuaregs' longstanding grievances being addressed in good faith. Even if negotiations between the Bamako government and the Tuareg groups get underway, it will be difficult to build mutual trust. That's why Malian soldiers' reprisals (which have including executions) against Tuaregs suspected of Islamist sympathies must end and why the forces from ECOWAS and Chad must work hard to win the confidence of the Tuaregs. It would be a tragic mistake were Malian leaders to ignore the historical roots and political facets of this conflict and to view it a purely military problem.

For now, France has achieved its objectives, at minimal costs and to general acclaim. But the crisis is not over. As it unfolds, France will find that it is unable to influence the course of events as decisively as it has in weeks past.

Should the soldiers of ECOWAS and Chad face a resurgent insurgency that uses an array of irregular tactics -- among them suicide and car bombings, assassinations, ambushes, and hostage takings -- effectively, France will face the choice of staying out or deepening its involvement. The first option would allow the recurrence of the instability that led France to intervene in the first place. The second, should it lead to a long war, could erode public confidence at home. It could also start breeding local resentment because France, the former colonial power in this part of Africa, has its own history of misdeeds.