French-led forces in Mali are beginning to find just how hard it will be to eliminate the jihadist rebels that have commandeered the northern two-thirds of the country.
The first major ground operation by French special forces and Malian troops has commenced in Diabaly, and the al-Qaeda-linked rebels who captured the town on Monday have now hijacked the local population.
The militants are "using the population as a shield, which is complicating matters for us," a Malian army source told AFP. "And they have only child soldiers."
The Western-backed forces will need to take control of Diabaly as well as Konna — the capture of which last week prompted French intervention — before they even attempt to head into the vast desert in the north.
And that's when the rebel advantage will become even more pronounced.
Andy Morgan of The Guardian describes the starkness of the edge:
"The north of Mali is as alien to the average soldier from southern Mali as the Alaskan tundra is to a citizen of Massachusetts or Manchester. That sense of alienation will be felt even more keenly by troops from Nigeria, Senegal, Benin and Ivory Coast, used to jungle and savannah bush warfare, when they finally roll onto the vast treeless plains of the southern Sahara."
Later he adds the troops will likely " find their enemy strangely invisible " as the Islamists mingle with innocent city-dwellers and nomads.
French President Francois Hollande said French troops would stay until "Mali is safe, has legitimate authorities, an electoral process and there are no more terrorists threatening its territory." The prospect of that happening soon seems unlikely.
“You can’t launch a war of extermination against a very tenacious and mobile adversary,” Col. Michel Goya of the French Military Academy’s Strategic Research Institute told The New York Times. “We are in a classic counterinsurrectionary situation. They are well armed, but the weapons are not sophisticated. A couple of thousand men, very mobile.”
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