Early French Pullout Could Put Mali Gains at Risk

If France pulls out of Mali too soon, insurgents routed from the country’s north could be back on the march in the face of an ill-equipped African-led force attempting to hold gains made by French and Malian forces, officials cautioned Thursday.

“That frankly would be a disaster,” said Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs during a hearing on the crisis in Mali, broadcast live via web feed. “This militant threat remains too deadly.”

A month after France’s intervention in Mali to push insurgents from areas they occupied last year, officials in Paris have signaled they intend soon to hand the mission over to African forces, who will attempt to hold the battlefield gains. While no date has been set for a French withdrawal, some security analysts have questioned whether a west African force of between 3,000 and 6,000 can handle the job.

At the moment, some 13 west African nations are helping in the effort to secure northern Mali, where political unrest last year following a coup — led by a U.S.-trained officer — allowed insurgent groups, including al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, to take control of large swathes of the country.

For its part, the U.S. has been providing intelligence and logistical support to French and African forces. For example, the U.S. has flown 22 refueling missions that have provided about 867 pounds of jet fuel to French aircraft, according to U.S. officials.

The problems in Mali are vexing and offer no easy solutions, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson told the committee.

“There is no question Mali is a political and military disappointment,” Carson said. “Its military failed to perform on the battlefield.”

While the U.S. has pumped some $41 million into military training programs in Mali in recent years, those efforts have not translated into results, officials said.

Despite the training efforts, Mali’s military was always less concerned about a growing threat from Islamic militants and more concerned about “perceived threats” posed by separatist groups in Mali’s north, said Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs Amanda Dory.

Concerns about AQIM operating in Mali and across northern Africa have intensified in recent months, particularly after Islamic militants stormed a gas plant in Algeria, an attack that resulted in the deaths of more than 30 workers.

While most experts say AQIM doesn’t pose a direct threat to the U.S., it can attack Western and U.S. interests abroad. “The threat is dynamic and evolving,” Dory said.

As the French transition out of a combat role, extremists could try and regroup in the north and launch an insurgency, Dory said.

While the U.S. would like to see the west African mission eventually develop into a United Nations peacekeeping effort, Carson said such a transition shouldn’t happen prematurely.

Royce concurred.

“I don’t think there’s a peace to keep at this point in Mali. Why push for the UN peacekeeping mission at this time?” Royce said.

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