JOHANNESBURG - French-led forces have wrested control of three key cities in northern Mali from al-Qaida-linked militants, but the fighters have escaped with their weapons into a desert region the size of Texas and are poised to mount counterattacks.
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."
With the rapid success of French and Malian forces in recapturing the major cities in northern Mali, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said his country's forces will be leaving Mali "quickly." France sent its troops and warplanes to Mali on Jan. 11 after the armed Islamists began encroaching on the south from their northern stronghold, toward the capital. The French quickly blocked the offensive and forced the insurgents from three key northern cities, Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal, that they had ruled for 10 months. The French had already made clear that's the extent of their mission.
That leaves Malian and African forces facing new, daunting challenges: holding the cities and searching out the rebels in the vast desert surrounding the population centres. The well-armed Islamist extremists, who are from Mali and a host of other countries, are known to have recruited child soldiers and are expected to use the civilian population as human shields and to use suicide bombers.
The fight for Mali has really barely begun, warn analysts.
"It's a strategic withdrawal (from the cities) by the jihadists which means that the fight is not over," said Alex Vines, head of the Africa program at Chatham House, a centre for international affairs in London.
Vines said unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, already have a prominent role in intelligence gathering in the area but have not been used to fire on targets, such as the drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"That could change," he said.
The Pentagon is considering setting up a drone base in northwest Africa to increase intelligence collection, said a U.S. military official this week. Niger has accepted the idea of hosting unarmed U.S. drones but has not endorsed armed U.S. Predator strikes or the launching of U.S. special operations raids from its territory. The U.S. and Niger in recent days signed a "status of forces agreement" spelling out legal protections and obligations of American forces that might operate in Niger in the future.
Vines believes that a French force will have to stay in Mali for some time to come. It is widely agreed that the Malian army is not up to the job of holding the cities on its own. Malian troops put up little to no resistance when the Islamist rebels attacked the cities of northern Mali in April last year. Eventually the army will be backed up by an African force that is still being assembled. There are now some 2,900 African soldiers in Mali, including 1,400 from Chad who are used to fighting in harsh, desert terrain like northern Mali.
"The French will have to ... keep in place a backup force that can move in quickly if there is any trouble," Vines said.
But French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian declared on Monday that "the mission is accomplished," referring to the blocking of the jihadists' offensive toward the south and retaking of the northern cities.
"The African forces will slowly take over from France to ensure the sovereignty of Mali," he told French television station TF1. "And France doesn't plan to stay. Once the handover has happened, France will pull out."
But even so, he seemed to hold out the possibility of a continued French role.
Asked about the status of the thousands of jihadists, he said: "Some were killed because the attacks were violent. Others are trying to flee, but the borders of neighbouring countries are closed and guarded today. Others are hiding so it's necessary to continue, with help from African forces, Malian forces, with the re-conquest, the liberation of Mali."
The French desperately want more African troops in Mali, but they have been slow in coming, said Johnson of Viewpoint Africa.
"The French need thousands of troops to protect the gains that have been made," he said. "Many of the surrounding states in the region are fragile themselves. And finance is needed to pay for those troops."
Western and African nations Tuesday pledged $450 million to fight the jihadists, but the African Union said that $960 million is needed. In contrast the Islamists appear to be well funded from the drug trafficking and cigarette smuggling.
Johnson said from 5,000 to 10,000 armed Islamist extremists are in Mali, including many who gained combat experience while fighting for Moammar Gadhafi, the leader of Libya before he was overthrown and killed.
Nigeria is expected to take the lead in the African force in Mali. It has West Africa's best trained army, biggest economy and has led other African forces in West Africa. However, Nigeria is already battling its own Islamist extremist insurgency — the Boko Haram rebels.
Johnson warns that the Mali conflict may last a long time.
"We are dealing with an ideology, a mindset and to fight something like that is a long-term process," he said. "Experience in Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia shows that. It's going to be a long, hard struggle."
Associated Press writer Sarah DiLorenzo contributed from Paris.