Last updated: January 15, 2013 5:09 pm

Concern rises over France’s Mali mission

Senior US and British officials expressed concern on Tuesday that France’s military deployment in Mali could be severely challenged by jihadist fighters, amid fears that African reinforcements could be delayed.

As President François Hollande announced that France will deploy a total of 2,500 troops in Mali to combat a jihadist insurgency, both the US and UK governments continued to give political support to the operation. France has carried out air strikes on Islamist rebels in the west African country since last week.

Mali map

Mali map

But the US has appeared slow in its response to French requests for military help, reflecting considerable unease in Washington at what some officials say is the ill-defined nature of the military operation. Some US officials said French forces could be left waiting for weeks or months inside Mali before a planned international force made up of troops from African states arrives. As of Tuesday no African troops had arrived, although Nigeria promised some would arrive this week.

According to Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, a US think-tank: “The US does not want to tell an ally to stand down but by starting an operation they might not be able to finish, the French risk exacerbating the crisis.”

A senior British official told the Financial Times that French forces could be vulnerable to attacks from Islamist rebels in central Mali as they wait for African states to provide military support.

The immediate aim of the French troop deployment is to halt the potential advance of rebels from their bases in northern Mali into the government-controlled south.

Western military experts are confident that France will be able to halt the jihadists through air strikes and the likely deployment of French forces close to rebel-controlled areas.

“If you ask me whether the French can hold Mopti and retake Diabaly, then there is no doubt they can,” the British official said. “But as they sit there waiting for African forces to turn up, there is a real risk that the French could be vulnerable to hit-and- run attacks from the jihadists.”

Regional experts said the number of rebels opposing the French – largely made up of fighters linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Mali Tuaregs – was far larger than some western governments realise.

“In total, there are 10,000 to 12,000 men [in the rebel ranks],” Mathieu Guidère, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Toulouse, said. “Out of that, there’s a solid core of 3,000 to 4,000 trained fighters.”

Professor Guidère said themilitants have used financial resources from kidnapping and drug smuggling to buy weapons they can use against aircraft, “like surface-to-air missiles”. One sign of the rebels’ retaliatory capability came soon after the start of France’s intervention, when a French pilot was killed as his helicopter took heavy small arms fire.

Other experts also questioned whether the French aerial bombing campaign might be stretched. This is because French jet fighters have to fly into central Mali from N’Djamena in Chad, some 2,100km from their targets.

“French air power is not overwhelming, though it may increase over time,” said Brigadier Ben Barry of the International Institute for Strategic Studies think-tank. “In any events, jihadists will certainly be able to adapt to evade being targeted, hiding among populated areas.”

The Islamist rebels will certainly face pressure, as they are operating far from their bases in the north of Mali.

“These guys are at the end of a very long logistical tether,” said Francois Heisbourg, adviser to the Foundation for Strategic Research, a Paris-based think-tank. “A typical column of 200 4x4s is a bit like an infantry-cum-armoured brigade from the second world war. They need ammunition and fuel – gasoline is a big issue for them. They will find it difficult to retreat in good order.”

However, the biggest challenge facing the French is how long they will have to wait for troops from Mali’s African neighbours to come into the country and add to pressure on the Islamist rebels.

Senegal, Niger and Burkina Faso are among the African countries that have each committed to send up to 500 troops. However, as of Tuesday, none had arrived in Mali.

Nigeria, which is expected to lead the regional force, said on Tuesday it hoped to have 900 troops on the ground within a week, 300 more than were originally promised.

“We are sending a company of 190 soldiers within 24 hours and the others will follow,” said Colonel Mohammed Yerima, spokesman for Nigeria’s defence ministry, by telephone from Abuja. “The force commander and technical team are already in Bamako.” However, Col Yerima did not say what the troops were likely to do on their arrival in Mali.

Additional reporting by Hugh Carnegy in Paris

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