Post-mortem on French operation in Mali

The French-led military operation in Mali succeeded in that it drove back an Islamist offensive headed for the capital Bamako, but it also revealed areas where the army must bring more means to bear.

Logistics and information gathering proved to be weak links in France's military capacities, while the integration of troops from Mali, Chad and other West African nations worked well in what was dubbed Operation Serval.

French General Gregoire de Saint-Quentin, its commander, acknowledged on Sunday that Mali was still partially unstable because Islamist fighters "have a striking ability to melt into the ocean of sand that comprises a desert."

"Is Mali completely stabilised today? The answer is no," he told the weekly newspaper Journal du Dimanche.

Here is a resume of the action.

- Rapid decision to intervene:

French President Francois Hollande decides to intervene on January 11 after Islamist fighters reach the central Malian town of Konna, putting the capital at risk.

A few hours later, pre-positioned French forces in Chad and Ivory Coast arrive in Bamako to ensure the protection of French nationals.

Rafale combat jets take off from a base in eastern France and strike Islamist troops from a distance of 4,000 kilometres (2,500 miles) during a raid that takes nine-and-a-half hours and requires five in-flight refuelings.

France appears to be on its own, though European partners and the United States participate in the refueling operations.

- Rapid ramping up of in-theatre capacity:

Additional French troops arrive quickly to bolster Mali forces that were pushed back as the rebels advanced. A peak of 4,500 French troops are assigned to the operation, along with those from West Africa placed under a UN mandate known by its French acronym Minusma.

That force is to eventually total 12,600 troops, while France plans to keep around 1,000 in Mali, with responsibility for future military strikes.

Islamists are quickly driven back from key cities such as Gao, Timbuktu, Kidal and Tessalit.

Intense firefights take place in the northeastern Ifoghas mountains where Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) established strongholds and where large amounts of heavy weapons and munitions are captured.

- Limited casualties among French forces:

The French army reports losing six soldiers since January 11.

Chad suffers the loss of 38 troops by the end of May, while Mali says 63 had been killed by the end of March.

Among Islamist forces, losses are estimated by French sources as running from "several hundred" to around 600.

According to French lawmakers Christophe Guilloteau and Philippe Nauche, tasked with reporting on the operation, a "perfect mastery of firepower" keeps collateral damage to a minimum.

- Logistics, what worked, and what did not:

Operation Serval showed that France must develop key components of its military forces that were supplied by the US and European partners.

General Jean-Jacques Borel indicated in late May that almost half of all inflight refueling was done by US aerial tankers, for example.

"Whether it was a question of protecting troops or material, at both the tactical and strategic levels, Operation Serval confirmed our weaknesses," Guilloteau and Nauche wrote.

In addition to logistical needs, France realised it cannot do without medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) surveillance drones, and decided to buy a dozen from the US.

"In Mali there are no drones, I need them, I buy them," Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian concluded.

Up-to-date French weapons such as the Rafale, the Tigre combat helicopter and self-propelled 155-mm Caesar cannon perform well, but older Gazelle and Puma helicopters are not up to snuff, the lawmakers said.