On 30 January French and Malian forces entered Kidal, a town in Mali 200 kilometres south of the Algerian border, liberating the last large town to be held by Taureg insurgents. This latest victory occurred only two days after the French liberation of Timbuktu, the famed desert city which had been under rebel occupation for the past nine months. The campaign which the French army has waged in the desert of Mali has been executed with lightning speed—in the nineteen days since France announced its intervention into the conflict on the side of Malian government, French forces have advanced 1500 kilometres.
French intervention looks as though it will be decisive in defeating the Taureg insurgency which began in January 2012. The current revolt is only the latest in a long cycle of violence between Malian Tauregs, the Berber inhabitants of the Sahara, and the government in Bamako, which governs from the tropical south of the country and represents the interests of the more numerous sub-Saharan inhabitants of the country. The current revolt is the fourth Taureg revolt since Mali gained independence in 1960.
What distinguishes the current revolt in Mali from past ones is the success the rebels have enjoyed, thanks to improved organization and equipment. Taureg mercenaries returned to Mali from Libya in 2011, bringing with them the equipment issued to them by the collapsed Gadhafi regime. In four months the rebels routed the Malian army, occupied the northern half of the country, and declared the independence of Azawadi, the new Taureg state. Political chaos followed in April. In the South, members of the Malian army launched a coup against the government in Bamako, whose policies against the revolt the coup leaders considered too ambivalent, while in the North, the loosely coordinated rebel organizations, notably the secular MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) and Islamist Ansar Dine, turned on each other and competed for control of their recent gains.
Infighting on either side slowed both the rebel advance and the government response, and so from April to December of 2012 the Islamist rebels were able to consolidate their control in the North, driving the MNLA from all major towns in the Sahara. Islamist rebels instituted a brutal interpretation of Sharia law in the areas they occupied and desecrated the medieval monuments and archives of Timbuktu. Due to reports of human rights abuses ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), a powerful force in the region, urged the creation of an intervention force drawn from the militaries of neighbouring African countries, but despite endorsement from the UN in December little progress was made in putting the task force together. But on January 11 President Hollande announced that France would intervene against the Islamist insurgents in Mali. In his press conference he couched the intervention in terms of ‘a crusade’ and stated that France was prepared to stay in Mali for ‘as long as necessary’, sparking murmurs that France was setting itself up for its own Afghanistan. But in the meantime France has enjoyed extraordinary military success and there have been no successful jihadist reprisals on French soil.
Britain recently dispatched nearly three hundred support personnel to train the Malian army, but maintains that the soldiers will not be involved in combat. Although some may fear yet another foreign military commitment, it looks as though the French and British troops will soon be returning home, especially as the ECOWAS soldiers have begun to deploy to Mali, bolstering the French and Malian forces in the extensive territory liberated from the rebels.
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