The gears of humanitarian intervention are rolling along smoothly if one takes the words of government and military officials at face value. Backed by over 2,000 French soldiers, their Malian counterparts have managed to establish the beginning of a defensive barrier and halt the Islamist coalition's movements in the country's inner delta. For several months Ansar Dine, the north's Tuareg-Islamist outfit, had leveraged its al-Qaeda contacts to encroach upon the country's mid-section, seizing positions on both sides of the Niger River before advancing on Konna. This move proved one step too close to Sevare's airport, the Islamists' likely target, and the town has now been fortified by French troops in less than a week.
VOA French to Africa correspondent Idrissa Fall described Sevare as being in a "state of war," overrun by French and Malian military forces, and empty of civilians. Its airbase will serve as a main international jump-point into the north.
The influx of French troops has allowed for the creation of a defensive line between Sevare and Diablay, a modest town that was overrun by militants shortly after France's initial air-strikes in Konna. Several hundred miles to the southwest and 50 miles below Diablay lies the town of Niono. Here French forces have entrenched themselves with Malian soldiers as they construct a forward operating base on the conflict's northwestern flank. French commanders are currently awaiting reinforcements and scouting reports from the north, and plan to take control of Diablay after the town is checked for disguised militants (who reportedly vacated on Saturday).
“The deployment towards the north... which began 24 hours ago, is on course with troops inside the towns of Niono and Sevare,” Lieutenant Colonel Emmanuel Dosseur told reporters on Sunday.
Accordingly, defensive lines should be stretched in the opposite direction of Sevare as more French troops and the first African contingents arrive. 50 Senegalese troops landed in the capital on Sunday and 200 have been cleared to deploy from Niger. National media is interpreting their activation as a possible second front on Mali's eastern border, where Ansar Dine and the Movement for Unity and Oneness in West Africa (MUJAO) are particularly entrenched. Neighboring Burkina Faso has also pledged to contribute a force inside Mali and to deploy a separate force along its border, theoretically connecting French and African troops along Mali's north-south divide.
In a potential boost, Chad recently offered to raise the total African force from 3,800 to 5,800.
So how long will the international community's wheels keep rolling in what they view as an uninterrupted state? Questioning over the conflict's anticipated schedule has yet to disperse, instead becoming less clear by the day. Every action and decision tends to run longer than expected in guerrilla warfare, as the style of warfare is designed to slow a larger army, and Mali's conflict is already headed in this direction. Less than 150 African soldiers have landed in Mali since French officials announced the beginning if their ground intervention; deploying the entire force will take weeks at best, months at worst.
“Step by step, I think it’s a question from what I heard this morning of some days, some weeks,” France's Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, said during a press conference in the Ivory Coast.
These troops are then scheduled to receive further combat training from NATO advisers, giving the Islamists more time to prepare and sliding the immediate brunt of combat onto Western forces.
To compensate for delays and soften northern Mali's ground targets, the French have begun bombing the Kidal region to the far north of Konna and Diablay. The ongoing assault is presumably intended to weaken the Islamists' material resources, not destroy their capabilities entirely, but "shock and awe" applies equally for the Western public. Such measures cannot be understand at the surface level. An extensive aerial campaign is insufficient by itself and requires a hard ground campaign against militants that have prepared underground since Mali's crisis began in early 2012. France's Defense Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, explains NATO's urgent dilemma: "The goal is to ensure that AFISMA, the African force, can take the baton from our own intervention."
Paris has continually measured its mission in weeks but, given the nature of asymmetric warfare and relative isolation of Mali, this number will hit double digits before the last African troops deploy and continue long afterward. For his part French President François Hollande has announced that France's mission will "last as long as necessary to win over terrorism in this part of Africa"; other officials, such as Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and Le Drian have issued more optimistic assessments. However Le Drian's latest statements, whether true or false, help understand Mali's vast proportions. Telling France 5, "The goal is the total reconquest of Mali. We will not leave any pockets of resistance," he was subsequently asked how far north Paris is willing to go.
"If necessary, the African forces can appeal for support from French forces when they arrive in Timbuktu," Le Drian answered.
Timbuktu rests at the edge of the war though. How long will African troops need to cross 500 miles of desert and recapture Kidal - six months to year? Holding the area until Mali's government can reassert authority could take even longer (elections are tentatively planned for April), and the Islamists are embedded in the city's mountainous surroundings. As with most of their urban holdings, the Islamists can afford to withdraw from Kidal and continue their guerrilla war along society's margins. French and possibly other Western forces thus stand a good chance of accompanying African troops throughout the initial phase of their campaign.
Timbuktu would just be the starting point.
With these issues come a variety of related problems that must be addressed in the near-term and long-term: the unstable status of Diablay and Konna, French calls for greater U.S. support, the uncertain depth of Washington's military commitment, African expectations of Western financial support. Descriptions of the Islamists in Diablay pile complications onto seizing any town, big or small; locals recount that they "generally kept their promise" to leave the people be, although their presence forced the town to shut down. Eyewitnesses said that every fighter masked his face, but they also reported a significant number of Algerians and Libyans in Ansar Dine's ranks, which are mostly composed of Tuaregs. Separating their legitimate grievances from the Islamist alliance's wider agenda presents a chronic challenge for the international community.
Only one factor appears concrete in Mali: the conflict will always move slower than described by government officials. Asked at Niomo whether a "long war" had finally begun, the commanding officer Colonel Frederic replied, "Maybe, yes."