Two weeks into France's intervention in Mali the
scale of the challenge facing French troops as they take on thousands
of jihadists in a new front in the fight against terrorism is
starting to sink in.
President Francois Hollande's decision to answer Mali's call to combat the fundamentalists who threatened to overrun the country in mid-January still enjoys broad international consensus.
For evidence that Mali is becoming a staging post for international terrorism all he has to do is point to last week's attack on a gas complex in neighbouring Algeria.
"We cannot permit northern Mali to become a safe haven," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agreed Tuesday as the United States, which had three nationals among the 38 workers killed in Algeria, began airlifting French troops to battle.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, whose country lost at least three nationals in Algeria, warned the British public to prepare for a "generational battle" that would take "years, even decades, rather than months."
And yet, for all the shaking of fists, there was no rush to battle in the US and Britain, two countries that have been at the forefront of the fight against the "original" al-Qaeda, but who have offered to play only a support role in Mali.
Hollande put on a brave face as he met German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Monday, insisting the best thing the world could do was to provide training and logistical support.
But Hollande still cast a lonely figure as he prepared for the most difficult part of the offensive: Chasing the rebels, whom Malian and French forces have routed from the centre of the country, out of their northern strongholds.
The task for the combined African-Malian force that is being quickly cobbled together to lead that ultimate battle is daunting.
Apart from Chad, none of the West African countries that have supplied about 1,500 troops so far have experience in desert combat.
Many are also woefully undertrained and under-resourced.
In December, a French television report showed a group of Malian soldiers in target training. "Pam, pam, pam. Brrrt, brrrt, brrrt," the soldiers intoned, forced to mimic the sound of gunfire for lack of real ammunition.
And then there's the sheer immensity of the territory they aim to recover - an area twice the size of France with porous, poorly guarded borders through which the rebels slip back and forth with ease.
Even if they do manage to chase out the estimated 3,000 rebels who have established a reign of terror in the towns of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal this past year, how long until they return?
As concern grows that France could become ensnared in a protracted Afghanistan-style conflict, the call for Hollande to establish a clear line in the sand in terms of France's role is growing.
"It was about stopping the jihadists and terrorists penetrating south towards Bamako. Now I have the feeling we are engaged in a general reconquest of Mali, which is immense," former foreign minister Alain Juppe said Monday, calling for France's position to be "clarified."
Hollande's response has been both categoric and vague.
"People often ask how long this will last. I reply, the time it takes. The time it takes to vanquish terrorism in this area," Hollande said at the weekend.
Analysts say that vanquishing terrorism that has flourished on a bedrock of underdevelopment in the Sahel will require more than military might alone, as the experience of Afghanistan has shown.
It will require soft power and patient negotiation with the semi-nomadic Tuaregs, whose decades-long quest for greater autonomy from Bamako the jihadists have sought to exploit.
"Even if the north does regain a certain tranquility I think the fracture between the north and south has become irreparable," Pierre Boilley, a Sorbonne University professor and director of African studies at France's National Centre for Scientific Research, told dpa.
"Even if the military operation is successful all parties will be obliged to negotiate increased autonomy of the north."
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