According to Al Jazeera, French forces have captured the airport a couple of kilometers outside Timbuktu. Footage from the network also shows a French column advancing northward near Niafunké being welcomed along the way.
But the Ahmed Baba Institute has apparently been burned: see video from Sky News.
320 kilometers to the east, the city of Gao was the scene of jubilation as French and Malian army vehicles rolled through the streets. Video from Channel 4 News and France24 shows public celebration as Malian troops entered the city.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that the Malian people are generally behind the French-led intervention. Add to the boisterous celebrations described above, and the fact that it’s now cooler to be French than American in Bamako (as reported by Peter Tinti), and a string of gushing editorials and comments in Malian state media, the recent proposal by a Malian politician (albeit a marginal one) to name one of the country’s military bases after French President François Hollande. Such pro-French expressions would have been unimaginable just a few weeks ago.
I have yet to see data from opinion surveys carried out in Mali since Operation Serval began on 11 January, but newly released data (gathered well before the operation) show that most Malians have long been in favor of international military action to drive rebels out of northern Mali. Last week the research firm ORB International published results of a poll, conducted between late November and early December 2012 in all six regions of Mali not under rebel occupation, that asked about 1500 Malians for their views on foreign responses to Mali’s situation. (See a summary or view the complete response table.)
- Asked “Do you support or oppose foreign countries using force to target AQIM in Northern Mali?“, 78% of respondents said they supported such action. The rate was nearly 90% in the Mopti region.
- Asked “Concerning the situation in Mali which do you think should be the biggest focus for the international community right now?“, 67% chose Mali’s territorial integrity, ahead of the country’s humanitarian and political crises.
These results come on the heels of survey research conducted earlier in 2012 by political scientists Jaimie Bleck and Kristen Michelitch, in a rural part of the Mopti region then located in a no-man’s land between rebel and government lines. This research showed significant support for a military solution long before hostilities resumed this month.
- Asked, “Is armed conflict worth it to reunify the country, or is it better to peacefully separate? “, 78% said it was worth the fight, 9% wanted to peacefully separate, and 23% were undecided.
- When asked “What type of intervention should be launched?”, 50% of respondents mentioned negotiations, while 60% cited military intervention as important to restore territorial integrity.
- Most respondents who felt that military intervention was necessary preferred exclusively domestic involvement by the Malian military (43% of all respondents). Of those citing the need for foreign intervention, the US was the most popular of the potential allies (23% of respondents favored US intervention), followed by France (18%) and then ECOWAS (15%).
Of course France still has many Malian critics, even if their message is somewhat muted these days. SADI party leader Oumar Mariko, a vocal opponent of international military intervention, has blamed the international community’s response to the March coup (i.e., sanctions and threats) for weakening Mali’s armed forces, while also insisting that it is the Malian army, not the French, that has been bringing the fight to the rebels. He has also suggested that the French are hiding the ugly realities of their military campaign, telling Al Jazeera: “Their version of events is all that anyone will hear. But when this is over, Malians will talk to each other and quickly learn the truth.”
(Some Malian reporters complain of not getting access to the front lines, alleging that only journalists traveling with French troops have been able to cover recent developments in the north.)
In a sense, however, Operation Serval’s current popularity among Malians may not matter, because the greatest military and political challenges lie ahead. Practicing classic guerrilla tactics, the Islamist forces have withdrawn as their enemy advanced. They have now fallen back to remote desert strongholds. As Luke Harding of The Guardian writes, “it is uncertain whether France’s giddy military advance will deliver any kind of lasting peace. So far the ‘war’ in Mali has involved little fighting. Instead Islamist rebels have simply melted back into the civilian population, or disappeared. Refugees who fled the rebels’ advance believe it is only a matter of time before the jihadists come creeping back.” (See video from Harding in Sévaré.)
The only major town the Franco-Malian advance has not yet taken in northern Mali is Kidal, about 300 kilometers northeast of Gao. Kidal was the target of French airstrikes in recent days. Today secular nationalist Tuareg rebels belonging to the MNLA (Mouvement National pour la Liberation de l’Azawad) claim to have ousted their Islamist rivals from the town. Over the weekend one report suggested that Kidal was the scene of a pro-MNLA demonstration.
Retaking Kidal may prove much more complicated than retaking Gao and Timbuktu. But even if it’s quick and easy, the fact remains that the Islamists have yet to be militarily defeated. How long will the French be willing to help the weak central government maintain its presence in Mali’s far north, a zone where its control has always been tenuous? Can Malian security forces, already accused in both the Malian press and foreign media of engaging in “reprisals” against civilians, manage not to alienate the population of that zone?
“Destroying a couple of AQIM bases and driving the rebels from Mali’s northern cities is the easy bit,” writes Luke Harding. “The challenge will be holding on to the territory against a nebulous and cunning foe and, perhaps, somehow incorporating the rebels into a lasting political solution.”
Mali’s conflict must be resolved not only in the wastes of northern Mali but in the corridors of power in Bamako. The country’s political leaders must now get down to the difficult business of working out how Malians will coexist in a single republic, under a democracy worthy of the name. Recent history may be discouraging, but one hopes Malians will rise to the occasion.