France has declared al Qaeda defeated in northern Mali, but also says it will keep troops there for as long as necessary to ensure that the Islamic terror groups do not return and resume using the mountains near the Algerian border as bases. Meanwhile, France still has 3,200 troops in northern Mali, down from the peak of 4,500. Casualties have been light (7 dead and 20 wounded so far this year). The French used a lot of smart bombs to kill Islamic terrorists (who would generally choose to fight to the death if cornered) and have spent most of the last six months searching for al Qaeda bases and hidden supplies in the north, especially in the mountains near the Algerian border. In doing that French led forces have some 220 tons of ammunition, several hundred assault rifles, pistols, machine-guns and mortars, and 12 tons of ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer commonly used to make bombs.
The biggest problem France had in Mali was logistics. The air campaign (bombers, reconnaissance and transports) consumed 13 tons of jet fuel, while ground operations required 2 million tons of vehicle fuel. Nearly half the jet fuel came from European bases, as that was where many of the warplanes and most of the aerial tankers and other support aircraft operated from. But most of the supplies (9,200 tons) were shipped into neighboring Senegal and then by rail to Mali and truck to the north. This takes a long time, so 18,500 tons were flown in.
French operations in northern Mali left about 700 of the 2,000 Islamic terrorists up there dead. Most of the rest fled to Niger and Libya. The 3,000 Tuareg (MNLA) rebels in the north quickly switched sides and killed over a hundred Islamic terrorist, losing about as many dead themselves. Mali and African peacekeeper troops lost about 200 dead and wounded. Most of the fighting was done by 4,000 French and 3,000 Chadian troops (who suffered 38 dead).
France and the United States were initially at odds over the value of African peacekeepers in Mali. The U.S. believed that the African troops headed for peacekeeping duty there were too poorly trained, equipped, and led to be of much use. France believed they could work around the deficiencies and make the African troops useful (for local security, like manning roadblocks and guard duty). The U.S. believes that you have to be careful with that approach, as the African troops are often led by corrupt officers who will demand bribes from the locals. This causes popular resentment of the peacekeepers and helps the Islamic terrorists to remain hidden. The French eventually only used Chadian troops (who had a lot of combat experience from their recent civil war and skirmishes with Sudan) for actual fighting and used the others (and Malian soldiers) for security. This worked. While the Americans have been training a growing number of African troops in the last decade, the French have been in Africa for over a century and have a long track record of getting things done despite all the problems the Americans fret about.
The Tuaregs of northern Mali quickly offered to work with the French after the French invasion got started in January. While most Tuaregs detest the corrupt black African politicians and officials from the south, they have no problem living next to black African Malians or doing business with them. Even before the French moved north in January, most of the Tuareg (who comprise most of the northern population) rebels (the MNLA) had turned against the Islamic terrorists who had taken control of the north by force. MNLA means (in French) “Liberation Army of Azawad,” and the Mali government was upset that some of the MNLA men controlled roads and cities and were approving documents (like passes) with rubber stamps that said “State of Azawad.” That is the Tuareg term for their homeland in northern Mali. France tolerated the MNLA as long as these Tuareg rebels worked with France and did not fight the Mali army or government officials. Several hundred Tuareg Malian soldiers work directly for the French as scouts and translators. These men helped the French determine which Tuareg rebels could be trusted and which are Islamic terrorists (usually members of MUJAO or Ansar Dine). France persuaded the MNLA to make formal peace with Mali last June and to stop running cities and towns, at least until a long-term peace deal could be worked out.
There were three different Islamic radical groups in the north. Ansar Dine (which controlled Timbuktu) was from Mali and led by Tuareg Islamic radicals. MUJAO (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa) controlled Gao and was from neighboring Mauritania. AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) had members from all over North Africa, but mostly from Algeria, and controlled most of the north. MUJAO was basically a Mauritanian faction of AQIM, and there was some tension between the two groups. In August MUJAO merged with another (largely Arab) AQIM faction to form a new group, Al Mourabitoun.
AQIM had the most money and weapons and used this to exercise some control over the other two radical groups (who outnumbered AQIM in Mali). Both these groups are sometimes at odds with Ansar Dine, which felt it should be in charge because it is Malian. Until late 2012, all three groups cooperated in order to maintain their control of the north. Then Ansar Dine began negotiating with the Mali government for a separate peace and some kind of compromise over Tuareg autonomy in the north. In part this was because MUJAO and AQIM were bringing in reinforcements from Morocco, Western Sahara, Algeria, Pakistan, Egypt, Yemen, Nigeria, and Sudan and threatened to reduce the area Ansar Dine controlled. Ansar Dine saw itself as the only Malian group in the Islamic radical government up north and was determined to defend Tuareg interests against the many foreigners in MUJAO (which also has Malian members) and especially AQIM (which wanted to run everything). Ansar Dine saw AQIM as a bunch of gangsters, dependent on its relationship with drug gangs (al Qaeda moves most of the drugs north to the Mediterranean coast) and kidnappers (who hold Europeans for multi-million dollar ransoms). All this cash gave AQIM a lot of power, both to buy weapons and hire locals. With the high unemployment in the north and the image of Islamic warriors, working for AQIM was an attractive prospect for many young men. Most of those new recruits deserted as their employers fled the advancing French. The Tuareg members of MUJAO and Ansar Dine could find locals in the north to shelter them while the foreigners (mainly from AQIM) had to flee because they were too easily spotted by Mali civilians and pointed out to the French, Malian, and other African troops who now occupy the north.
As the French moved north they used the many followers (armed and unarmed) of the MNLA to help maintain order. There simply were not enough soldiers available and the MNLA men were there and had already been negotiating with the Mali government to make peace once the Islamic terrorists were gone. The Mali Army is still not strong enough to drive the MNLA out of the north. This is despite the fact that the north contains only about 12 percent of Mali's 15 million people and is largely barren desert. The MNLA is popular because they were locals, relatively honest, and sufficiently well-armed to keep the thieving southern politicians and soldiers away, for a while anyway. The Islamic terror groups made themselves unpopular (and made the MNLA look much better by comparison) in the north by forcing everyone to obey strict (no tobacco, alcohol, music, video, shaved men, and unveiled women) Islamic lifestyle rules. This ran into a lot of resistance, especially once the Islamic terrorists made it clear that their ultimate goal was turning all of Mali into an Islamic religious dictatorship.