France drives Islamist terrorists out of Timbuktu, signal slowdown of operations

Residents of Timbuktu celebrated today as French troops liberated the fabled city from the grip of Islamist terrorists and Touareg rebels, ending ten months of control by the uprising. With this victory in hand, France is now signaling that they will reduce their offensive operations in Mali:

The rapid advance to Timbuktu, a day after French and African troops took firm control of the former rebel stronghold of Gao, may spell the beginning of the end of France’s major involvement in the conflict here.

The French defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, was a little more cautious than the mayor in his assessment of the situation in Timbuktu on Monday evening, saying on television station TF1: “French and Malian forces are liberating the city. It’s not completely finished, but it’s well on its way.”

The French president, François Hollande, suggested on Monday that French troops might soon stop their northward advance, leaving it to African soldiers to pursue the militants into their redoubts in the desert north. “We are winning this battle,” Mr. Hollande said in televised remarks. “When I say, ‘We,’ this is the Malian army, this is the Africans, supported by the French.”

He continued, “Now, the Africans can take over.”

Or perhaps more Western efforts will take their place.  The US will be increasing its drone presence significantly with a new base in North Africa soon, perhaps in nearby Niger.  That will boost intelligence gathering in the Sahel, where Islamists had a nearly year-long run of success, and could also serve as a base for offensive operations against the same networks operating in Mali and other nations:

The U.S. military is planning a new drone base in Africa that would expand its surveillance of al-Qaeda fighters and other militants in northern Mali, a development that would escalate American involvement in a fast-spreading conflict.

Two Obama administration officials said military planners are eyeing the West African country of Niger as a base for unarmed Predator drones, which would greatly boost U.S. spy missions in the region.

The escalation comes rather soon after Barack Obama declared an “end to war” in his inaugural speech last week.  This looks like an expansion of the same war the US has been fighting since 9/11.  Instead of fighting them with troops on the ground, we’ll be fighting with drones in the air.  That may be an improvement, depending on your view of drone warfare, but it’s still a war.

The UK will also step up its operations in North Africa, including troops on the ground in Mali as France pulls back, although not in combat roles per se:

Britain is prepared to take the risk of sending a “sizeable amount” of troops to Mali and neighbouring West African countries as David Cameron offers strong support to France in its operation to drive Islamist militants from its former colony. …

Britain is prepared to provide hundreds of troops to help the operation and is considering a few options:

• Forming part of an EU military training mission in Mali. The British contribution to this would be in the “tens”, according to Downing Street.

• Training troops from the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) in neighbouring countries for possible operations on Mali. This is likely to be the main focus of Britain’s contribution because Ecowas members include many countries with strong links to Britain. British troops could be used to train Nigerian forces.

• Providing “force protection” for the trainers. This would be armed protection but would not amount to a combat role.

Looks like the West is getting serious about the Sahel, a situation they largely created by decapitating the Qaddafi regime without any plan to secure Libya and avoid the inevitable power vacuum that allowed these terrorist networks to spread and take control.