France's main concern in Mali is to protect its strategic and economic interests in north Africa without getting bogged down in a protracted counterinsurgency campaign. However, it seems that France did not fully appreciate the scale of the security problem in Mali until after it had deployed troops there on January 11 to check the Islamist advances and prevent Sevare military airport from falling into rebel hands.
Post-colonial French military interventions in Africa have usually ended in quick and decisive outcomes. That is not likely to be the case in Mali.
Mali is a landlocked former French colony that gained independence in 1960. It is bordered by Algeria to the north, Senegal and Mauritania to the west, Niger to the east, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast to the south, and Guinea to the south-west. There is a strong French influence throughout the region, much of which was controlled by colonial France.
Mali has a population of 14.5 million, 90 per cent of whom are Muslim. Politically, Mali is divided into eight regions, with the three northern regions of Tombouctou, Kidal and Gao being almost two-thirds of Mali's land area. The north is mainly desert and lightly populated. The Tuareg, who are the main population group in the north, numbering about 500,000, refer to the three northern regions and part of adjoining Mopti region as ''Azawad''.
In March 2012, a group of Mali soldiers staged a coup overthrowing President Amadou Toumani Toure and declaring the government in the capital Bamako (in the south) dissolved. The army's preoccupation in the south with changing the government allowed the northern rebellion by the separatist Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) to gain traction and, on April 6 last year, the MNLA declared Azawad an independent state. The power vacuum in Mali also provided an opportunity for Islamist extremists from the Algeria-based al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to move in from Algeria and exploit the situation in the north.
Algerian-led AQIM has a regional agenda to harness other less radical Islamist groups that would otherwise be more focused on local issues to AQIM's broader agenda of establishing a regional emirate. AQIM has in the past declared its intention to attack Algerian, French, Spanish and US targets. It is proscribed as a terrorist group by many countries, including Australia - which listed AQIM as long ago as 2002. French intelligence believes the Sunni extremists are being funded by Qatar (which is also funding the Syrian Sunni extremists).
The MNLA and AQIM are in competition in the north with an AQIM breakaway group, the black African-led Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA) which is mainly in southern Algeria and northern Mali. The MNLA's main ally was Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith), an extreme group that wants to impose strict Sharia law throughout Mali, but they have since had a falling out. There are also smaller groups such as Ansar al-Sharia (Defenders of Sharia) that have grouped together under charismatic tribal or ethnic leaders. The extremists are said to be well equipped with weapons looted from Libya during the Arab Spring uprising and its chaotic aftermath.
Both AQIM and Ansar Dine are known in the West for their destruction of world heritage Islamic sites which they consider to be inconsistent with fundamentalist Islam.
While these groups have clashed among themselves because of competing ideologies and interests, they can all be expected to oppose any external involvement in the north by French forces, Mali's security forces, or troops from other African countries. The Mali army is underpaid and poorly equipped and not motivated to take on the enemy in the north unless it is part of a French-led offensive. The French do not want to get bogged down in a protracted ground campaign because French casualties would be a problem for French President Francois Hollande. France would prefer to provide air and light armoured support and let Africans do the fighting on the ground.
The US, Britain and the European Union are prepared to provide military support to counter the extremists - but are not prepared to get involved in a ground conflict. The US and EU are, however, prepared to provide training to better enable local African forces to counter the extremists. And the US could, in some circumstances, deploy special forces to try to recover any American hostages.
The most effective way to make political progress in northern Mali would be for the French to engage in dialogue with the more moderate MNLA and try to work with the MNLA against the more extreme elements, rather than orchestrating military coalition operations that are likely to bring the different groups together in opposition and lead to a protracted, costly and unwinnable counter-insurgency campaign.
France's interests in supporting Mali against extreme Islamism are not altogether altruistic. Mali's north is believed to be rich in gold and uranium and, potentially, oil and gas. Mali is already Africa's third largest gold producer, while neighbouring Niger is a major uranium producer through French company Areva.
Ironically, France's activities in the region are probably also being encouraged by Qatar because it sees France as anti-Shiite and capable of furthering Qatar's international diplomatic ambitions. Qatar has substantial holdings in the French defence industry, and so seems to be in a win-win situation.
Because of AQIM's regional reach and influence, it is in a good position to conduct attacks against isolated facilities. The attack on January 16 against the remote gas production facility at In Amenas in southern Algeria, and the killing and capture of Westerners, was intended to underline to France that its rash involvement in Mali and use of Algerian airspace will have serious consequences. It was also a warning to Algeria not to help the French in Mali.
>> Clive Williams is an adjunct professor at Macquarie University's Centre for Policing, Intelligence and Counterterrorism, and a visiting professor at the Australian National University's Australian Centre for Military and Security Law.