01/19/2013 12:47 am ET Updated Mar 20, 2013

Mr. Hollande Goes to Mali

Here's an irony. The NATO air campaign that helped overthrow Muammar Gaddafi, and that French President Nicolas Sarkozy couldn't wait to launch (French jets were heading to Libyan targets before the other NATO participants were ready to go), has presented Sarkozy's successor, Francois Hollande, with a big problem in Mali. It has also placed France in what could prove a dicey predicament.

Mali was bifurcated last spring when Tuareg fighters, whom the Libyan dictator had routinely used as mercenaries, fled across Libya's southern border to Mali and joined their ethnic kin, who had long been battling for a separate state (Azawad) in Mali's north. The new arrivals were seasoned fighters, and well armed. Soon, northern Mali was out of the government's hands. The American-trained units based in the north fled, or defected to the insurgents, taking their weaponry with them. Amidst the bedlam, the Malian military made things worse by ousting the country's democratic government.

Worse was to come. The Tuareg fighters split. Hard-line Islamists trounced the nationalists and established a draconian shari'a-based state. Punitive amputations, floggings, the stoning to death of adulterers, and the harassment or punishment of women who did not meet the zealots' standards of Islamic propriety became commonplace.

After settling for the area they had conquered in the north -- it's about as large as France -- the Islamists moved unexpectedly to expand their area of control last week. They took the town of Konna. Mali's leadership, lacking an effective army and fearing that the insurgents would push further south and threaten the capital, Bamako, rang 1-800-FRANCE. Hollande responded quickly by committing French airpower and a small detachment of troops, which is being supplemented. By virtue of its former empire in Africa's west and north, France is the dominant external power in the region and has a long history of using its power there.

So what is France in for in Mali? Already, the insurgents have reacted to French airstrikes by commandeering civilian homes, forcing France to reassess an air-dominant battle plan because of the risk it poses to non-combatants. The insurgents are playing the long game and expect France to leave before long, if not in weeks than in months. Meanwhile, they hope to draw French forces into the vast outlying areas, which are suited to irregular warfare. That's why they have been willing to abandoned towns they hold. Why get pummeled when you can live to fight better another day?

That's not all. The attack on the Algerian gas field at In Amenas, just across the Algerian-Libyan border, by a radical Islamist group aligned with the Mali Tuaregs and the taking as hostage of Westerners working there show that France faces an opponent that will redefine the zone of battle as well as its modalities, instead of fighting on France's terms.

The insurgents will weather the storm, betting that Hollande does not want to get trapped in a lengthy campaign and that the armies of the neighboring African states that he hopes to hand off the fighting to will be no match for them. As long as the Tuareg Islamists retain their northern quasi-state, they can proclaim victory. This much seems certain: no one is eager to dislodge them from there.