By April 2012, the collapse of state authority in northern Mali had allowed a separatist rebel movement, the MNLA (the French acronym for National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad), to take over the north's major cities and to declare the independence of their long-dreamed-of state of Azawad. The dream of Azawad lasted less than two months, when MNLA fighters were pushed out of power by three Islamist groups, Ansar Dine, MUJAO (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa), and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). These movements attempted to erect governance structures and systems based on a strict interpretation of sharia in the areas they controlled, going so far as to impose such penalties as cutting off hands for accusations of theft, requiring women to wear hijab in public, and segregating boys and girls at school.
Fast-forward to mid-January, when the French stunned the world with the speed of their intervention. France's involvement in the crisis expanded quickly. French forces have taken control of the cities of Gao and Timbuktu, Kidal and others Islamists strongholds. France has hinted that it might pull back to leave African forces to run the operation.
As a sign of farewell, French President Francois Hollande will visit Mali on Saturday, his office said in a statement on Friday. He will be accompanied by the French ministers of defense, foreign affairs and development, the office said. Media reports earlier said that Hollande was expected to travel to Mali on Friday night. France has sent troops to the former West African colony as part of an effort to stop an advance by Islamist rebels.
France's initial success in its three-week old intervention in its former colony has gained Paris plaudits at home and abroad as a welcome blow struck against radical jihadists threatening Africa and the West.
But the next step in stabilizing Mali and pursuing the al Qaeda-allied fighters in their remote desert and mountain bolt-holes near Algeria's border looks like a much tougher task.
It will take longer than a few weeks and likely require a bigger and more international effort than the limited offensive that has so far involved 3,500 French soldiers on the ground, backed by warplanes, helicopters and armored vehicles.
But NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Friday he saw no role for the Western defense alliance in Mali. “NATO as such is not engaged in the Mali operation and I don't see a role for NATO as such in Mali,” AFP quoted Rasmussen as saying during a visit to Lithuania's capital Vilnius. The UN Security Council has decided that there should be an African-led stabilization force, he added. Rasmussen also commended NATO member-state France “for having taken swift and also effective action” in Mali, and individual NATO allies for supporting Paris in its mission.
The United States and Europe, where a recession-hit public has little appetite for overseas wars after Iraq and Afghanistan, have ruled out sending combat troops and offer instead training as well as logistical and intelligence support
Mali's future is far from certain. Both politically and militarily, now is going to be the hard bit. Mali's domestic politics are still far from settled; the junta that staged the coup that created this mess is still very much around and willing to intervene in politics, though their power seems to have diminished since the French arrived. Mali's president has announced his intention to hold elections by July 31, but whether doing so will be logistically or politically possible remains anyone's guess.
Militarily, the Islamists have been a headache for the African Union forces for decades. Without the French logistic and forces on the grounds, it will be a great challenge for the African Union forces to establish a lasting security in the region.
The Islamist forces are thought to be sheltering north of Kidal in the Adrar des Ifoghas, a vast, rugged mountain buttress that has given sanctuary before to al Qaeda hostage-takers and Saharan traffickers of drugs, people and cigarettes.
They are believed to have weapons, fuel and supplies hidden in caves, tunnels and rock strongholds. These were stashed away before their pell-mell retreat from relentless French air strikes that left a trail of rebel charred vehicles and abandoned arms caches in dusty Niger River and Saharan towns.
Their preserved arsenal could include heavy machineguns, hand-held rocket launchers and also possibly one or more Grad multiple rocket launchers mounted on vehicles, according to arms experts who have viewed photos and footage of munitions caches abandoned by the rebels in their hasty withdrawal.
Advocates of the African force to pacify northern Mali point to the example of the AMISOM African peacekeeping force in Somalia, which now numbers more than 17,000. Deployed in 2007, it has driven al Shabaab militants out of the capital Mogadishu and, more recently, out of the southern port of Kismayu.
But this has been a tough campaign lasting several years, AMISOM has suffered several hundred casualties and countries with troops in Somalia, such as Kenya and Uganda, have experienced militant bomb and guerrilla attacks on their soil.
So even as Malian and French leaders celebrate success on the ground, there is concern Islamist militants inside and outside Mali could strike back, just as they did in the surprise raid on the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria earlier this month.
By Guylain Gustave Moke