DIABALY, Mali — When France entered the world’s newest war against terrorism, French officials boldly declared that the ragtag radical Islamists they planned to oust from northern Mali would scatter in the face of a modern fighting force.
But two weeks later, reality has sunk in. Even as they bombard Islamist targets, the French troops are facing a military landscape that is far more complicated than it appeared at the outset, raising questions about France’s long-term goals.
With no clear exit strategy, the French are encountering a host of problems: Mali’s interim government is weak, its military is disorganized, and a long-promised African intervention force is far from ready. Even as French troops worry about killing civilians, it is unclear who the civilians are and where their sympathies lie. Ethnic, religious and regional rivalries, as well as old and unsettled vendettas, also are posing obstacles.
The Malian army, which France sought to bolster with its action, has been accused of committing abuses, particularly against the Tuareg ethnic group, some of whose members launched the March rebellion that has divided this West African nation. That could erode popular support for the military intervention here and in France, and it could complicate France’s ability to recruit secular Tuareg militias to battle the Islamists.
On Thursday, a new Tuareg militia emerged as Ansar Dine, one of three groups fighting in Mali, split. The new group, led by Tuareg leader Alghabass Ag Intalla, calls itself the Islamic Movement for the Azawad and says it is ready to negotiate.
French soldiers also could find themselves caught in the middle of growing tensions between the lighter-skinned Tuaregs, who are from the north, and black Malians from the south, who run the government and the military.
“It’s hard for the foreigners to know who is helping the Islamists and who are not,” said Demba Diarra, 82, a tribal leader in Niono, a town near Diabaly. “It’s so complicated.”
Already, French forces have faced immense difficulties in dislodging the Islamist fighters from two central Malian towns, Konna and Diabaly. In both cases, senior French and Malian officials explained away the problems by saying that they wanted to avoid civilian casualties. But community leaders and residents in Diabaly and surrounding areas offer a more complex portrait of the obstacles faced by France, including Islamist sympathizers and enemies of Mali’s military.
The concerns arise as the first criticisms of French President Francois Hollande’s decision to send troops have emerged in Paris, a rupture in what had been unanimous endorsement. Although opinion polls still show 65 to 75 percent support for the move, the political sniping has betrayed doubts about the length of France’s involvement.
Jean-Francois Cope, the conservative opposition’s pugnacious leader, was the first off the blocks. In a National Assembly debate, he said he and his opposition colleagues were worried to see France “so alone” on the ground despite plans for a pan-African force and promises of training by European Union military officers.
Alain Juppe, who was foreign minister under President Nicolas Sarkozy, qualified the intervention as “extremely risky.” He expressed fear that “we could get put into a spiral that we are going to have a lot of trouble getting control of.”
France’s strategy was — and officially remains — to secure Bamako, Mali’s capital, and the southern third of the country, then hold back on the ground while African troops, backed by French air power, recapture the Islamist-controlled northern cities of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal, French officials said. But that has become a more difficult and longer-term proposition. The African force, they acknowledged, is far from ready to assume its planned role.
About 1,000 African soldiers from five countries have been sent to Mali, out of the more than 3,000 planned, according to the French Defense Ministry. Their European Union trainers are nowhere to be seen except on the drawing board.
Against that background, specialists in Paris have begun to suggest that French forces should push on northward and secure the region’s main cities rather than sit idle on the new front line waiting for the Africans. But after the cities, the question would become: What about the 250,000-square-mile countryside?
“The fear of a new Afghanistan is haunting people’s minds,” wrote Yves Threard this week in Le Figaro newspaper. “Increased by the fact that our soldiers seem very alone on the ground to pursue the terrorist hunt.”
Konna was recaptured only last weekend, despite 10 days of bombing attacks. Similarly, a column of French armored personnel carriers entered the city of Diabaly, which was captured by the jihadists three days after the military intervention began, only on Monday.
“The war against the Islamists is not at all easy, and there’s a very small part of the population which is helping their cause,” Lt. Col. Seydou Sogoba, the Malian force commander in Niono, told reporters. “That is what is making the fight against them tough.”
What happened in Diabaly last week shows how old animosities, religious divides and the unpopularity of Mali’s military could haunt the French in the weeks and months ahead.
On the night of Sept. 8, Malian soldiers in this desert town stopped a truck coming from neighboring Mauritania carrying 17 preachers, all members of Dawa, a nonviolent Islamic sect. The soldiers then sprayed bullets into the vehicle, killing all but one of the unarmed preachers, according to residents and human rights activists.
Residents say the deaths were one reason that the jihadists targeted the town.
“Some people say it was a kind of revenge for the Dawa preachers killed by the army,” said Adbullahi Dagnon, the interim tribal chief of Diabaly.
Some residents welcomed the jihadists, clapping and saying, “This is the real way of Islam,” Dagnon recalled.
The Malian army clashed with the Islamists but retreated before the French began launching airstrikes. The day the militants attacked, two Malian soldiers were killed. Residents were divided over burying the bodies, with followers of Dawa and Sunna, a conservative Muslim sect, wanting to throw the corpses into a canal, said community leaders. The bodies were tossed there but later buried in secret, residents said.
The Dawa and Sunna members, however, helped bury the bodies of Islamists killed in French airstrikes, residents said. The jihadists spread out across the town, deploying in neighborhoods, using civilians as human shields. That forced the French to target residential areas, perhaps foretelling at once the nature of future battles and the risks of alienating local populations. In Diabaly, the strikes were precise, but they injured some civilians.
At the Sunna mosque in town, members denied aiding the Islamsists. “They lied about us,” said Seydou Keita, the brother of the imam. “It’s because [the Islamists] wear their pants short and so do we. They have long beards, and we have long beards.”
Still, some residents voiced support for the jihadists.
“They didn’t do anything wrong to the population,” said Sisogo Khailoou, standing near a house were the jihadists had kept weapons and ammunition. “They just came here to rob the bank and take the army’s stuff.”
In Dongole, a town about 15 miles from Niono, Malian soldiers killed a Tuareg man and his son last week, according to Human Rights Watch. On Wednesday, the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights reported that Malian troops had summarily executed more than 30 people they suspected of aiding the jihadists, including Tuareg soldiers who had defected from the army after the French intervention began.
Segoba denied the allegations, adding that “if it’s true, they have to bring us the proof.”
Many Tuaregs have gone into hiding in Dongole, said Adama Coulibaly, 31, a farmer. “People are pointing fingers because they are Tuareg,” he said. “I don’t trust them.”
French officials said contacts were underway before the intervention to entice Tuareg militia forces to join the anti-Islamist campaign. But since the French arrived, talks have fizzled amid the abuse allegations.
The Tuaregs would be vital to helping the French navigate the vast and inhospitable desert terrain of the north, gather intelligence and gain the support of local populations.
But many in the Malian military have not forgotten that Tuareg fighters, who had just returned from Libya with an ample stock of weapons and pickup trucks, had pushed the army out of northern Mali.
“You can’t trust someone who is fighting against you,” Cpl. Mamadou Kone, a Malian soldier in Diabaly, said of the Tuaregs.
Among civilians in Diabaly, too, animosity is growing.
“The Tuaregs think they are smarter, and they think the blacks should be their slaves,” Dagnon said.
Diarra, the tribal elder in Niono, said many towns would be just as complicated for the French. “It’s going to be hard to find a solution,” he said.
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Cody reported from Paris.