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France Overtakes Last Islamist Stronghold in Mali

French forces stormed Kidal and seized the airport yesterday, felling the last of the urban Islamist strongholds in Mali. But it’s too soon to celebrate, as over the past few weeks hundreds and perhaps thousands of jihadists have fled to the deserts in northern Mali to regroup and presumably plan a counter attack.

The Washington Post reports:

New military strategies will be needed to rout the jihadists from their desert hideouts. When the French leave their former colony, armed extremists are still likely to remain. No one has yet publicly announced a campaign to hunt them down in the Sahara and in Mali’s villages, where they are believed to be slipping in among civilians.

“The French and Malian forces are dealing with an enemy—jihadists—that don’t have a fixed address, that don’t wear uniforms,” said Ayo Johnson, director of Viewpoint Africa, a think tank in London. “It’s an enemy that can disappear into the population and come out at will. The insurgents play the long game. They are not in a hurry, the French are. The Islamists could use the population as human shields. They could use suicide bombers. This is not a conventional war.”

International leaders, who undoubtedly recognize that the conflict is far from over,  gathered in Addis Ababa and Brussels this week to discuss further financial and military aid to Mali. African and Western nations pledged $450 million. UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who has wavered on British involvement, announced that 330 troops will be deployed to the region for noncombat purposes. Additionally, France endorsed a UN peacekeeping force to take over once the main combat offensive ends.

This new wave of assistance will offer relief, but long-term stability in Mali and in the region will only come from a network of strong, independent governments. Helping to build this in the Sahel is a whole new game, but one that global leaders will eventually need to play if Islamist insurgence in North Africa is to be overcome.

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