The decision to send in French air and ground forces to combat Islamist militias in northern Mali without African or other international partners marked a bold departure for French President Francois Hollande.
Since taking over in May, the Socialist leader had been criticized as indecisive and untutored in foreign affairs and had vowed to end France’s role as policeman in tumultuous African countries.
So far, the unexpected switch has paid off; Hollande has been praised at home and abroad for crisp leadership.
But should the operation bog down in the dusty vastness of northern Mali, where the Islamists roam, it could become a weight around his neck and an easy target for the conservative opposition in Paris, as well as Islamist and anti-colonial elements around the world.
Hollande said Tuesday that French forces have no intention of remaining in Mali.
During a visit to Dubai, he declared that they have been assigned to blunt a recent Islamist offensive; secure the capital, Bamako; and prepare the way for an African force that will assist the Malian army in restoring government authority across northern Mali.
In addition, it has maintained bases in five African countries, with about 5,000 troops, as well as arms, vehicles and warplanes, prepositioned and ready to go.
Most of the French airstrikes since the campaign began Friday have been launched from a base at N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, about 1,200 miles to the east, where French Mirage 2000D fighter-bombers were on hand.
Similarly, a military unit equipped with ERC-90 Sagaie armored vehicles, considered important for the broad sweep of the Malian conflict, drove into the country overland from a base in Senegal.
African force awaited
A long-promised African intervention force of 3,300, to be commanded by Nigerian Gen. Shehu Abdulkadir, has yet to show up, however.
Nigeria said the first elements of its 900-member contribution should be arriving by Wednesday.
But Hollande told reporters that it would be “a good week” before any of the other African troops are on hand.
Even after they arrive, it is unclear how long it will take to train troops from the various African nations to the point where they can work effectively with Malian, French and other forces against the lightly armed but extremely mobile Islamist fighters in northern Mali’s untamed, 250,000-square-mile northern sector.
The African governments originally promised to send soldiers as part of a French-led force that was to intervene next fall at the earliest.
A senior French security official said recently that they were nowhere near trained and ready — or even selected by their governments.
Hollande’s decision Friday to intervene immediately only added to the uncertainty.
Edward Cody, The Washgintton Post