Contrary to expectations, French troops deployed to Mali have discovered in their initial clashes that the desert fighters are better trained and equipped than was previously thought, French and United Nations (UN) diplomats have said.
This has led to the realization that the fighting could be bloodier than anticipated in the coming weeks and has made other Western nations even more reluctant to send in troops alongside the French soldiers.
On the other hand, French diplomats are hoping that this rallies their allies behind them.
An African diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity said the cost of failure would be high for not just the Malian people, but for all Africans.
The recent hostage incident in a desert gas plant neighbouring Algeria, which led to the Algerian troops launching a military operation to rescue the captives, also raises the possibility that Islamist violence could extend beyond Mali’s borders.
The diplomat was speaking after the first battles between French troops and the Islamist fighters.
The ground war got more intense on Thursday as French troops surrounded the town of Diabaly, trapping rebels who had seized it three days earlier.
“Our enemies were well-armed, well-equipped, well-trained and determined,” a senior French diplomat said.
“The first surprise was that some of them are holding the ground,” he said, adding that others had fled during six days of French air strikes aimed at halting the militants’ offensive and preventing the fall of Mali’s capital, Bamako.
The coalition of French, Malian and African forces are battling an Islamist coalition that includes al Qaeda’s North African wing, AQIM, the home-grown Ansar Dine and MUJWA militants.
Ever since the United Nations Security Council called for foreign military intervention, there has been increased cooperation between the Tuareg rebels, Islamists and foreign jihadists.
Some of the militants are believed to have received their training and weapons from the government of the late Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, who was ousted and killed by rebels in a 2011 civil war.
A number of diplomats say that it is clear that the militants’ strength was underestimated by the French, a view even the French do not dispute.
“They are better trained, I think, than the French had anticipated at the beginning and are fighting harder than had been anticipated,” a senior Western diplomat said.
Other envoys noted that the 2,000 promised Chadian troops, who are known for their desert-fighting expertise, have yet to arrive and it remains to be seen how they will perform.
Diplomats said that the overly optimistic assessments of the Islamists were understandable in what several envoys described as the “fog of war,” where clarity is rare and precise information and accurate intelligence are often hard to come by.