The French have won their battle, taking cities and towns out of the hands of Islamists. But taking sizable dense areas away from Islamists has never been very hard. Cities and towns in disordered areas are difficult to hold. It’s why Islamists were able to conquer them to begin with. But attempting to hold them will turn into a messy occupation as the Islamists regroup, terrorize the roads and begin recruiting native terrorists to carry out attacks inside Gao and Timbuktu.
The French government understands its military vulnerability. Its forces have smashed the Islamists, but the scenario is still the same as in Afghanistan. The Islamists pull back to the open spaces and mountains to begin the long push back. Casualties mount, the war begins looking senseless and then the troops pull out and the Islamists take over.
But the French solution appears to be the opposite of the usual nation building program. France has made a quick deal with the Mali government and the rebel Tuareg MNLA, which is bound to keep the country divided, but does shut out the Islamists. And France would like the African nations to send in their peacekeeping troops as soon as possible, though that is less realistic.
Hollande scored a political victory with the Mali intervention at a time when his domestic economic policy was flailing badly and his approval ratings were in the gutter. The approval improvement he gained from Mali is rather limited, but crucially it fights the perception of his ineptness and gives him ammo for his campaign against marriage and French traditionalists, not to mention France’s business community.
All of this however depends on a rapid withdrawal. Hollande knows it and so do the Islamists. Faced with the collapse of his domestic policy, Hollande explored his inner Sarkozy, talking tough and even threatening to deport Islamist Imams, a threat that he is as unlikely to carry out as Sarkozy.
If Hollande can’t get the infrastructure in place and the withdrawal looks like a collapse, his only achievement in office will be undone. And if he leaves with French hostages in enemy hands, the whole action will appear to have been for nothing.
Hollande doesn’t want to do any nation building, but he leaves a wounded Mali with the Mali military and the Tuaregs likely to resume fighting soon enough. And the fragmenting Islamists will find their way back into the Tuareg rebel ranks to repeat the same process all over again.
Still if the French maneuver works sufficiently well, then it may be worth using as a template. That type of rapid intervention, with a heavy reliance on special forces and rapid mobility, was what initially worked about the US takedown of the Taliban in Afghanistan. And it appeared to be the Rumsfeld model, until it was sabotaged in Iraq. Such rapid attacks and campaigns of destruction, followed by equally rapid withdrawals may be an effective means of destroying Islamist ambitions by crushing them at their moment of victory, when they have overeached just enough to be truly vulnerable.