BAMAKO – French troops surrounded the desert village of Diabaly in central Mali on Wednesday, the first direct engagement since France launched a military assault last week to oust radical Islamists who have advanced to within 400 km of the capital, Bamako.
In waging ground combat, France is entering the comfort zone of the rebels, who know the desert terrain and are veterans of guerrilla warfare. They have melded into the local population, occupied houses and hidden in mango groves to stage ambushes, residents said.
“The jihadists are mixing with the people, moving around in small groups of five,” said Salif Ouedraogo, an aid worker. “They are preventing people from leaving Diabaly. They want to use the people as human shields.”
What began as a campaign of aerial assaults now appears to be expanding into a ground war, raising questions about France’s military capability and political will to defeat the Islamists, a meld of al-Qaida militants, religious zealots and criminals who seized a Texas-size territory in northern Mali last March.
While French forces have had experience combating guerrillas recently in Afghanistan, they have not played the lead role in a counterinsurgency campaign since its colonial days.
“The French military today, although capable, is certainly not the French military that once conquered much of Africa,” said J. Peter Pham, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Michael S. Ansari Africa Center in Washington.
An all-out attack on the town by ground forces would sharply raise the risk of casualties and of criticism of the operation from within France. Fighting would probably have to proceed at close quarters, robbing the French forces of their overwhelming technological advantage.
It would be a dramatic change from the 2011 Libya intervention, in which France reported no casualties despite months of bombing and the presence on the ground of an unknown number of special forces.
In the wake of a March military coup, the Islamists piggybacked on a rebellion by secular Tuareg separatists that drove out the government from northern Mali and divided the country into two. Weapons from the late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s arsenals that were smuggled into northern Mali helped drive the rebellion.
However, the Islamists quickly pushed out the separatists and imposed a harsh brand of Islamic Shariah laws, marked by amputations, stonings and whippings. By the summer, three groups controlled the north: Ansar Dine, or “Defender of the Faith”; al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the terrorist network’s West and North Africa wing; and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa.
Last week, the Islamists advanced southward and seized the town of Konna, prompting the French military assault.
But military analysts say a high-tech campaign centered on airstrikes, surveillance drones and satellite intelligence is unlikely to dislodge the Islamists.
Strikes on northern towns such as Gao have only managed to drive the militants underground. The ineffective Malian military has been unable to retake Konna from the militants, despite an intense campaign of aerial assaults, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Tuesday.
The Islamist takeover of Diabaly on Monday came despite several days of bombing by French Mirage and Rafale warplanes, as well as repeated vows by Malian Army officers to storm their opponents. “This is not a war that can be fought from the air. This is a war that has to be fought on the ground,” Pham said. “It will get messy.”
On Wednesday, it was unclear whether the ground operations had begun. Le Drian told RTL radio: “Today the ground forces are in the process of deploying. Now the French forces are reaching the north.” But French chief of staff, Adm. Edouard Guillaud, told Europe 1 television that ground operations were launched overnight.
Oumar Ould Hamaha, whose fighters are believed to be among those who seized Diabaly, said that a convoy of armored French vehicles attempted to enter the town to take it back. He said the Islamists repelled the French after intense and close combat.
“I confirm that France came in by land, but they failed. . . . There was combat that was (extremely close) — between 200 and 500 meters away,” he said.
Le Drian said the Islamist guerrillas were part of the main faction of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, commanded by a veteran Algerian underground fighter, Abdulhamid Abu Zeid. They constituted the western column of a two-pronged southward offensive launched a week ago in what French officials said was an attempt to take Bamako and turn Mali into a terrorist-ruled country.
In Mali, the French forces face several key challenges. Lacking resources, they have to depend on Western allies such as the United States and Britain for logistical support. They will also need to depend largely on Washington for aerial intelligence, such as surveillance drones, satellite and cellphone monitoring.
France ultimately seeks to transfer leadership of the operation to 3,000 African troops promised by Mali’s neighbors and approved by the U.N. Security Council. The EU has pledged to train the troops. But even if Mali’s neighbors speed up their deployments, it could take weeks or months to adequately train the troops. They, too, have very little experience in desert fighting.
Strengthened by arms that spilled out of Gadhafi’s arsenals, the Islamists have rocket-propelled grenades, pickup trucks mounted with machineguns and armored personnel carriers seized from Mali’s military, among other weapons. They have also been recruiting children to fight, which could complicate France’s ground war. “How is this going to play out in Paris or Lyon when French soldiers are shooting children?” Pham said.