The French are likely to maintain a small counterterrorism force in Mali

From Eric Schmitt, New York Times:  With France planning to start withdrawing its troops from Mali next month, Western and African officials are increasingly concerned that the African soldiers who will be relied on to continue the campaign against militants linked to Al Qaeda there do not have the training or equipment for the job.

The heaviest fighting so far, which has driven the militants out of the towns and cities of northeastern Mali, has been borne by French and Chadian forces, more or less alone. Those forces are now mostly conducting patrols in the north, while troops sent by Mali’s other regional allies, including Nigeria and Senegal, have been slow to arrive and have focused on peacekeeping rather than combat, prompting grumbles from Chad’s president, Idriss Déby Itno.

The outcome of the fighting in Mali carries major implications not only for France, but also for the Obama administration, which is worried that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other militant groups could retain a smaller but enduring haven in remote mountain redoubts in the Malian desert.

To help the French, the United States began flying unarmed surveillance drones over the region last month from a new base in Niger. And the administration has spent more than $550 million over the past four years to help train and equip West African armies to fight militants so that the Pentagon would not have to. But critics contend that the United States seems to have little to show for that effort. 

Turning Mali’s own fractured army into a cohesive and effective force would entail “a huge amount of work,” according to Brig. Gen. Francois Lecointre of France, who is leading the effort to retrain Mali’s Army. As if to underscore the point, a group of Malian troops briefly abandoned their posts recently and fired shots in the air to demand a deployment bonus. . . .

The French-led operation in Mali has killed scores of militants and destroyed many weapons caches, and France has said it will not withdraw until the threat from the militants is vastly diminished. Even so, some Western officials say the African troops in Mali will be up against guerrilla fighters with far more experience in desert warfare than they have.

“No amount of exercise or training in the next couple weeks or months can, in itself, prepare African forces for their new role in Mali,” said Benjamin P. Nickels, a counterterrorism specialist at the National Defense University’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies in Washington. “An ongoing commitment will be required.”

France has already delayed its withdrawal by at least a month, amid fierce fighting against a major militant stronghold. The French had some 1,200 soldiers in that battle; along with 800 troops from Chad, they have been focusing their efforts on a 15-mile zone in the Adrar des Ifoghas, the rocky, barren mountains near Mali’s border with Algeria.

The French are likely to maintain a small counterterrorism force in Mali after withdrawing most of their 4,000 troops from the country, diplomats say. The bulk of the peacekeeping duties will shift to African troops, with the growing likelihood that they will operate under a United Nations mandate.

But in a sign that Western officials are worried about whether the Africans will be up to the task, some diplomats are suggesting that the United Nations approve a heavily armed rapid-response force of up to 10,000 troops to ward off any resurgent Islamist threat in Mali. Chad, which has 2,200 soldiers in Mali and decades of experience in desert warfare, would probably supply the core of any peacekeeping mission.  (photo: Joe Penny/Reuters)