Troops from at least eight West African countries, led by Nigerian Maj. Gen. Shehu Abdulkadir, are assembling in the Malian capital, Bamako, this week to battle an alliance of rebels that has been in control of two-thirds of the desert nation since April and threatens to destabilize the region.
The African troops deployed eight months earlier than planned after the fighters - mainly militants seeking to impose strict Islamic law - moved toward Bamako earlier this month. Their advance was stopped only by hastily deployed French jets.
"There are serious concerns about the regional force's capacity to conduct counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism operations in northern Mali," Alexis Arieff, an Africa policy analyst at the Congressional Research Service, said in a Jan. 17 interview. "It's incredibly difficult terrain. You are talking about mixed battalions. You add to that lack of common language, lack of specific training in desert warfare for some, lack of transport to get to the north."
AngloGold Ashanti and Randgold Resources are among mining companies with operations in the landlocked country, which vies with Tanzania as Africa's third-biggest gold producer. It's one of the continent's poorest nations, with the crisis leading to an economic contraction of 4.5 percent last year, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Togo, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Senegal, Benin and Ghana have pledged to contribute troops to the African-led International Support Mission to Mali, or Afisma, which was conceived by the African Union before France's airstrikes. The force is set to reach 5,500, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Europe1 radio, higher than an earlier plan of 3,300. For the wider region, which has seen violent clashes in countries including Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone and Liberia over the past decade, stability is at stake.
"The crisis in Mali, if not brought under control, may spill over to Nigeria and other West African countries with negative consequences on our collective security, political stability and development efforts," Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan said in a letter to the country's Senate on Jan. 17 requesting troops.
Militants who captured a gas plant in Algeria on Jan. 16 and took dozens of hostages had demanded that France end its military intervention in neighboring Mali. Algeria reported that 23 hostages and 32 terrorists died when government forces raided the plant Jan. 19, and officials warned that the death toll could rise.
Mali is twice the size of France, which had colonial control of the country until 1960. The United States and European governments say they are worried that al-Qaida-linked groups are establishing bases northern Mali from where they may stage terrorist attacks on Western targets.
The African force will cost an estimated $500 million, Desire Kadre Ouedraogo, president of the Economic Community of West African States Commission, told state-owned television in the Ivory Coast Sunday. International donors will meet Jan. 29 in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa to discuss funding.
It's not clear who will fund the force, said Lori-Anne Theroux-Benoni, a Dakar, Senegal-based researcher with the Institute for Security Studies.
"Some are still asking who will pay," she said in an interview on Jan. 16. "Funding will quickly become a problem if it is not resolved."
Mali's year of crisis was sparked by a coup in March led by soldiers complaining they didn't have the training or equipment to fight the rebels, who had started attacking northern military outposts. The insurgents exploited the situation to overrun the vast desert region, including the historic trading city of Timbuktu.
In order to shore up Mali's state authority, the African troops will need to win back the rebel-held territory and provide enough security to hold elections, Theroux-Benoni said.
"It's not perfect and there'll be lots of casualties, but they have to deal with the situation at hand," she said.
The French force may reach 2,500, Fabius said in Abidjan on Jan. 19, with 2,000 already in the country. There will be a joint command center to coordinate between the African and French contingents, according to Chaka Aboudou Toure, the representative to Mali of the Economic Community of West African States Commission.
West African nations have in recent years hardened their response to challenges on state authority. When Ivory Coast's former president, Laurent Gbagbo, refused to step down after he lost a 2010 election, Ecowas immediately backed his challenger, Alassane Ouattara, and supported France when it used force to oust him.
The region's soldiers have had limited success in previous interventions, the biggest of which was in Liberia's civil war in 1990, which waged on for another six years after West African troops were deployed.
Heavy weapons and fighters from 2011 civil war in neighboring Libya have boosted the arsenal of the insurgents, who number 2,000 to 5,000, with criminal bands and drugs smugglers on the fringes, according to a report from CF2R, a French institute that does research on intelligence.
African countries are also keen to intervene for fear of Islamist fighters collaborating with militants in their own countries, said Stephen Ellis, a senior researcher at the Africa Study Centre in Leiden, the Netherlands. Nigeria, Africa's top oil producer, is already battling Boko Haram insurgents whose attacks have killed more than 1,500 people in a four-year campaign.
The attackers in the raid on the Algerian gas plant included citizens of Algeria, Mali, Egypt, Niger and Mauritania, as well as Canada, according to Mauritania's private ANI news agency, citing an unidentified source in the group.
"None of the governments in West Africa have any sympathy for the Islamist groups but every West African country has an Islamist movement," Ellis said in an interview. "Unemployment is so high in most countries that you can always recruit youth to fight, especially if there are opportunities for looting and crime."
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