Both Malians and foreign analysts are grappling with the scale of operations thought necessary to retake northern Mali from the rebels – with many commentators questioning how France could have underestimated the strength of its adversary.
“From my experience, the French have always underestimated the threat [in Mali],” says Rudy Atallah, who served as Africa Counterterrorism director in the office of the US Secretary of Defense.
Mr. Atallah, who has extensive experience in the region, questioned optimistic military assessments predicated on the belief that the battlefield is the “flat and open” Sahara.
“We’re talking about a large geographic space and it is sad to see that some people think that there are no places for these guys to hide,” he says. “It’s not a force on force fight,” he says. “This is an insurgency war. It doesn’t take a lot of Islamists to create a lot of damage. They [the Islamists] are prepared for this."
Several days ago the rebels moved into Diabaly, a village about 215 miles from capital city Bamako after the days of heavy bombing in other locations in the north, including major population centers such as Gao, Douentza, and Lere.
The rebel capture of Diabaly served as yet another example of the Malian army’s inability to win a fight and renewed concerns that French air power in tandem with Malian ground forces would not be enough to stave off the Islamist push southward. Now many of the estimated 2,500 French troops largely based in the southern capital city of Bamako have been mobilized north to various locations in central Mali.
With the Malian and French militaries cutting off access to certain areas, and amid reports the cell towers have been taken offline or destroyed, almost no information is coming out of the cities of Diabaly or Gao, leaving many Malians to wonder if the Islamists are gaining the upper hand.
“Since yesterday, the network is down,” says Diabaly native Oumar Coulibaly, who works as an accountant in Bamako. “I don’t know anything, there is no information,” he says with frustration.