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.