As French troops and their allies start their tenth week fighting against Muslim militants and terrorists in Northern Mali, opinion in one of the world's poorer countries remains firmly in favour of the intervention by France, the old colonial power, in the country's struggle against the extremists which so nearly brought down the country's government. If the fundamentalists had reached Bamako, the capital, it is more than likely that the victorious Islamists would have imposed the strictest and most intolerant form of Sharia law, destroying one of Black Africa's most colourful and generally liberal cultures.
Within a couple of weeks of French intervention on 11 January 2013, Al Jazeera, the Qatari based news channel, conducted a survey on France's Opération Serval titled "Mali Speaks". Those in favour of the French military response - an overwhelming 96 per cent - were asked to identify one of five "Sentiment" categories which best described their reason for their positive response. The answers should act as a wake-up call for Mali's leaders and politicians and indicate just how nearly a "failed state" Mali has become. M. Hollande can take somewhat cold comfort from the replies as well because now, having committed France to aiding its former colony, a too hasty withdrawal could so easily undermine what confidence and stability the intervention has established.
The Al Jazeera Sentiment category least expressed was Stability, with only seven per cent answering that this was their primary reason. Typical replies were: "Yes, I agree because the intervention will put an end to disorder in Mali". Others praised the protection given by France because they looked to it for support first and foremost and would have been disappointed if France had left it to another country to come to their aid. Some more astute recognised the support that France is receiving from Algeria, notable because both of these countries share memories of a vicious civil war/war of independence, with a bitter aftermath which has strained relations ever since.
A most interesting reply though might have come from a Tuareg, a minority people who form 10 per cent of Mali's population of 15 million, many of whom want to break away and form an independent state, Azawad:
"Yes, like all northerners, I think France should have intervened in north Mali because our families suffer from it (presumably the imposition of Sharia law) each day. But I fear they (the French) will be confused and kill innocents..."
The next three Sentiment categories each got 20 per cent.
It was Necessity that drove France: "France had to intervene because she was our coloniser and is our saviour now", though neither Bamako nor Paris will have been happy to hear replies in this Sentiment category along the line: "France should intervene. It's necessary to support the MNLA."
That's the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, but it was this determinedly secular, mostly Tuareg group which went on the attack against the Malian army in early 2012 fomenting instability throughout two-thirds of the country. Founded in October 2011, it had by April 2012 whilst allied with the militant group Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) taken control of all northern Mali. The MNLA a couple of months later were to be defeated in turn and brushed aside by Ansar Dine (Tuareg but determined to keep Mali whole and under a rigid theocracy) allied with two other extremist Islamic groups.
Other responses fitting this Sentiment particularly, showed that although 90 per cent of Mali's population is Muslim, the Malians are tolerant of others: "Yes, France was completely right to intervene in Mali because these people are not (true) Muslims".
Very deep-felt Gratitude towards France and President Hollande was a simply expressed Sentiment category by itself and another, Security, again praised French intervention saying that without it the country would have collapsed, the Malian Army being so poorly equipped. The Islamists were generally perceived to be "bad" and many emphasised the Islamic principles of peace, love of one's neighbours and, again, tolerance.
The largest Sentiment group, Anti-terrorism, puts in a nutshell just how the majority of Malians view the jihadists with many describing the Islamists as a "plague of the modern era" and "an enemy supported by invisible hands".
That left the four per cent who condemned the intervention, some not trusting the French or saying that it was an internal problem but the most interesting response was:
"I ask myself why the US didn't react in such a case. Is there any interest (for) them to come (and) act directly? But since we don't have the resources, they are not ready to spend the money."
Since this poll was taken by Al Jazeera, the United States has provided significant assistance to France and its allied troops from ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) acting in accordance with a UN mandate. The response does seem to infer that America and the West in general are only willing to act in cases where our economic interests are at stake, particularly oil supplies. Mali, it should be remembered, was in the doghouse by more than one country after a coup led by Army officers and NCOs, removed President Amadou Toumani Touré from office on 22 March 2012. The coup came about due to that fraught situation in Northern Mali where the Tuaregs consistently bested Government forces and where the latest rebellion - a tense relationship has been a fact of life for the past 100 years - last erupted between January and April of 2012. In this short timespan, the insurgents, reinforced by battle-hardened ex-Libya veterans, were within striking distance of key towns and bridges across the Niger and the Government had lost control of over 300,000 square miles of territory.
In moving speedily to "uphold democracy", countries overlooked a situation where the Army feared with much justification, the complete imploding of the state. The Army believed this was due to the politicians' corruption, incompetence and mishandling of the insurgency. Exacerbating a worsening problem, the Army itself was seen by the people of Mali to be totally ineffectual, often running away from their attackers. The soldiers however, claimed that they had been denied the necessary supplies to fight much better armed rebels, including a dearth of weapons, ammunition and food. Shortly before the coup over 80 Malian soldiers had been slaughtered at Aguel Hoc near the frontier with Niger and it was demonstrations by returned comrades supported by the families of the dead which had sparked the coup. It's little wonder then, that when President Hollande visited Timbuktu on 02 February 2012, he was greeted with adulation whilst Mali's interim-President, Dioncounda Traoré, who was accompanying him, was side-lined or ignored by the cheering crowds.
In fairness to the USA it must be said that its Government probably saw itself in a difficult legal position having broken off direct contact with Mali after its democratically elected President had been overthrown, whilst making it clear that normal relations would be resumed once free and fair elections to choose a new government were held. The USA could possibly have been more flexible once the Army had stepped down and an interim-President appointed but by acting under the UN mandate there is no practical difference in its current support.
Progress by the French and their ECOWAS allies was rapid up to the taking of Timbuktu and President Hollande's visit. Capturing Kidal, proved tougher but this was done by Malian troops and demonstrated what they were capable of if well led and given proper support. As February wore on however, the Islamist insurgents intensified the battle and changed tactics using sudden raids in the rear of the advance, the use of land mines and suicide bomb attacks.
The region of Kidal, vast and very rugged, has witnessed intensive fighting for several weeks now especially in the Ifoghas Mountains and the ground forces are aided by a squadron of French Mirage 2000 fighter jet pilots from Airbase 101, some six miles outside Bamako and some 90 minutes flying time from their enemy's position. As of 05 March, over 1,000 combat hours have been logged by these pilots. It is the troops on the ground however that are daily coming into contact with a determined and surprisingly well armed enemy.
On Thursday 08 March, French forces were visited by their Defence Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, after their troops had earlier in the week captured what appears to be the major base of AQIM (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), the main ally of Ansar Dine a year earlier. A very well organised site situated at Ametetai in the Ifoghas Mountains, its size surprised the visiting Minister even as French troops were dismantling it. M. Le Drian told Europe 1 radio that the arsenal of weapons "by the tonne" were most impressive:
"We knew this part of Mali was potentially the sanctuary of AQIM and we weren't wrong...We're dealing with resolute and heavily-armed terrorists who are engaging in significant fighting and we have been able to inflict heavy damage on them."
Searching other nearby valleys for terrorist bases continues and the French have confirmed that fighting, some at close quarters, is continuing against Islamist raids near the city of Gao. The Independent on 10 March described the resistance and retaliation near Gao as much "stiffer than expected" by the French authorities ending their article:
"Once this phase is over, Paris will face another dilemma. President (Hollande) has promised to begin the withdrawal of troops next month but neither the disorganised Malian army nor a promised West African force is yet ready to occupy the ground if the French leave."
There is something else they ought to ponder. May Ying Welsh for Al Jazeera reported on 04 March from N'Djamena, the day that saw the repatriation of the 26 Chadian soldiers killed in battle in northern Mali on 22 February, that many Chadians are highly sceptical about the Malian offensive. This was the single biggest loss of life - the French had lost three at the time of her report and have lost another soldier since. Ms Welsh says that "Chadian troops are the main ground force on the Mali war's real front line (with France supplying Special Forces and air support). Chad is bearing the main brunt of the fighting...(and) it is they who totally destroyed (the) main mountain base. Chad (one of the poorest countries in the world) has a true desert army composed of Saharan native fighters...".
The lady's article was accompanied by a video which interviewed a number of Chadians confirming her report.
There are 8,000 or so troops involved in this Mali campaign and the Chadians number 2,000. It might make good reading in the French press that the boys will start coming home next month but the political earthquake that would ensue from serious disgruntlement in the ranks of such an important element as Chad contributes, should make President Hollande and his Government hesitate in making promises that they may be unable to keep!