Just as the international community did at the beginning of the Afghanistan intervention, Hollande has set the bar high. To be sure, the comparisons between the current crisis in Mali and the situation in Afghanistan on Sept. 11, 2001 are far from perfect. Still, the goals the French president has set for Mali are just as distant as those established by Washington when it launched the war in the wake of the devastating al-Qaida terror attacks in the US. And in Afghanistan, 12 years after that mission began, very few of those original goals have been met.
Hollande's position is clear that the French operation is not merely a brief intervention to stop the Islamist advance from northern Mali toward the capital in the south. Rather, Paris is looking for support from Africa, Europe, the US and elsewhere for an operation aimed at freeing northern Mali from the yoke of Islamist extremism and establishing long-term stability in the country. Those who join him must be prepared for a long and difficult war.
According to Philippe Hugon, a Paris-based expert on Mali, it could be possible to drive the Islamists out of major cities within about six months. But years could go by before remote areas along the borders with Algeria and Niger are under control.
Reinforcements are expected in the coming days. Some 400 troops from Nigeria, Togo and Benin arrived Sunday in Bamako, Mali, to take part in the campaign against Islamist rebels, France said. Chadian troops also reportedly arrived in Mali. French fighter planes and helicopter gunships carried out a dozen operations over the weekend in Mali, most aimed at "terrorist vehicles." African nations are expected to take the lead in the operation launched by France on January 11. The cost of the Africa intervention could top $500 million, a top official with the West African regional bloc said.
Despite the regional support -- and France's clear military advantages, demonstrated in recent days with targeted airstrikes and small special forces assaults on Islamist positions -- the mission remains a dangerous one. "If you start a mission with lofty goals and moral claims, it is difficult to quickly withdraw later," says one veteran NATO diplomat with experience in Afghanistan. Indeed, despite widespread popular support at home, the leadership mantle that France has donned could ultimately become a political boomerang.
The Mulathameen Brigade, which claimed credit for the mass hostage-taking at an Algerian gas plant, has threatened to carry out more attacks, SITE monitoring service said. The Al-Qaeda-linked group said in a statement on Monday that the hostage-takers had offered to negotiate freeing the captives seized at the plant, but the Algerian authorities used military force, Reuters reported. The brigade said it would attempt further such attacks until Western forces end their military involvement in northern Mali, where French forces are fighting to retake control from Islamist groups.
Likewise, there is still no clear strategy for how to fight the Islamists. Intelligence officials have estimated that they have some 2,000 fighters who are extremely mobile and have excellent local knowledge of Timbuktu, Gao, Kidal and other towns and cities in northern Mali, which they were able to quickly overrun in the spring. It seems likely that they would pursue a strategy similar to the one the Taliban used in Afghanistan: first fleeing the international force to neighboring countries and then waging a guerrilla war from there.
The political situation in Mali is also a complicated one. An interim government has held power in the country since a military coup d'état last March. In recent days, government leaders have promised to hold elections in April, but it is impossible to know just how serious they are about democracy. Given that the country is essentially split in two, holding an election would be extremely challenging.
Indeed, free elections in the north are virtually impossible for the time being, and a vote in which only those in the south could cast their ballots would risk strengthening the north-south divide.
Officials in Paris are well aware of the challenges facing them. As recently as the weekend, the Defense Ministry in Paris was promising the mission would only last "a few weeks." Now, just a few days later, hardly anyone believes that the withdrawal will be anywhere near as rapid.
By Guylain Gustave Moke