"Transition time in Timbuktu", Olivier de France

Transition time in Timbuktu

It was barely a few months ago: the French president, Francois Hollande, was fighting his way through Timbuktu's massive crowds and happily swanning through the streets of Bamako. At home and abroad, he had achieved what he had failed to do in the previous six months of his presidency -- become presidential.

How far away that seems. The presidential mantle that Mali afforded him was promptly snatched away at his return, by the social, economic and moral crisis that still besets the country and his apparent failure to steer the course. He is at a record low in the polls - lower still than president Sarkozy was at his very lowest. And yet there now seems no route but the domestic route for the beleaguered president. His recent entreaties to Germany and China have encountered little sympathy, to say the least, and Mali has become but a back story to the issues of the day.

Things, however, are certainly moving in the right direction. The French parliament recently voted to extend the French operation in Mali, and the UN just okayed its own operation, security conditions on the ground permitting. So where are we?

Unmuddling Mali

When the French troops arrived the country was a mire divided into two: religious, ethnical and tribal factors combined in different ways and all conspired to make the situation entirely unreadable. AQMI, the MNLA, the MIA, the MAA, Ansar Dine, the Mujao, and all manner of splinter groups fought the Malian military, and fought amongst themselves. The MNLA, according to the Malian army, was every bit as bad as Ansar Dine. In the north, Ansar Dine was perceived as every bit as bad as AQMI. The MIA, an affiliate to Ansar Dine who wanted nothing to do with the MNLA, proceeded to changed allegiances half way through the conflict. It also turned out there was an entirely different group in the south of the country, also called Ansar Dine.

With such a transient constellation of groups and splinter groups, you might be forgiven for simply giving up, and declaring the situation on the ground to be unintelligible. This, by and large, is what the Americans did.

When they realised one of the rebel leaders was a graduate of their own military academies in the region, they promply relabelled most of it "global terror", declared themselves incompetent, and invited the Tchadian and Mauritanian armies to step in. Similarly confused, the press mostly followed suit, alternatively chosing to call the rebels "jihadists", "narcoterrorists", "armed islamists", or even simply "islamists."

What now?

Luckily for them, the intervention by France was so successful as to simplify the situation quite drastically. The only rebels French troops are now fighting are ones entrenched in the far north, where their impregnable citadels "rule over a few piles of stones". The best part of AQMI, Ansar Dine and the Mujao's combattants have left the field, been killed or disappeared.

In the interval, the country has happily fallen victim to another string of acronyms. On the ground shortly will be the concurrent forces of the MINUSMA, MISMA, Serval, EUTM Mali, as well a number of policing forces with an odd lack of acronym.

In short, the UN operation (MINUSMA, roughly eleven thousand troops) should progressively take over from the French (Serval, initially about five thousand troops) and African troops (MISMA, roughly six thousand) come July. A number of French forces (about a thousand) will stay stationed in the country for the foreseeable future, with a strong mandate for protection, combat and counterinsurgency -- alongside a small European training mission (EUTM Mali) and a policing force.

This international set up will be aiming to subdue the remaining armed groups, stablise the country, protect civilians, guarantee the political transition and make sure free and fair elections are held. At which point, Francois Hollande's greatest political accomplishement to date might not do him much good.