A combined French and Malian operation Jan. 15 targeted the town of Diabaly in west-central Mali, while al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb fighters reportedly moved into the more remote western part of Mali, possibly abandoning the northern towns of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal.
Meanwhile, a company of the French 3rd Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment was sent from Ivory Coast to Bamako. The first British C-17 transport aircraft arrived in the Malian capital overnight, carrying armored vehicles from France, and a Canadian C-17 carrying supplies is expected to arrive soon. The French army also has units standing by in France and Abu Dhabi that are expected to deploy to Mali soon. France currently has more than 800 troops taking part in Operation Serval, and Paris has said it will eventually send 2,500 troops to Mali.
Given the resources and forces France is deploying to Mali and the surrounding region, France is clearly preparing itself for any contingencies that could arise during its efforts to neutralize al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its ethnic Tuareg proxies in Mali. The current operation itself began as a reaction to the Jan. 7 rebel offensive on the central Malian towns of Lere, Konna and Sevare — the latter being the first significant town and airport in southern Mali as one approaches from the north.
The rebel advances altered the original plan, which had called for a gradual deployment of West African and African Union forces and the simultaneous buildup and training of Malian forces. The rebel offensive was likely a two-pronged operation: Rebels would have aimed to take control of the Sevare airport to prevent its use as a staging base for intervention forces and would have attacked along the western flank of the Niger River, seizing as much territory in southern Mali as they could before intervention forces deployed. The clashes at Konna in particular dealt a severe blow to a demoralized Malian force and precipitated the immediate deployment of French troops to the front line.
As the French military establishes a blocking position, France's air force is maintaining pressure on jihadists with continuous airstrikes. France is understandably hesitant to commit its forces to a drive into northern Mali, preferring to support West African, African Union and Malian ground forces in a push north. However, France is also under political pressure to wrap up major combat operations in a matter of weeks rather than months. It is uncertain, though, whether African ground forces will be ready to mount a serious offensive north, even with French support, in the next couple of weeks — though African troops may begin to deploy into southern Mali in the coming days.
The jihadists have reportedly abandoned most of their positions in the major urban areas of Azawad. The rebels left Timbuktu and Kidal during the night (as they did Gao earlier). Rather than present a concentrated and visible target for the French air force, the rebel strategy is likely to avoid a direct fight against superior firepower, relying instead on insurgent tactics against the French and their allies when and if they proceed into northern Mali.