A French soldier, second from left, speaks with Malian soldiers near Diabaly.… (Arnaud Roine, French Army…)
BAMAKO, Mali — The commander of Mali's army is so confident of a swift French and Malian military victory against Al Qaeda-linked militias in his country's north that he declared that the war would be over in a month.
Taxi drivers and shopkeepers listened to Ibrahim Dahirou Dembele on crackly radios across this dusty capital Tuesday after the French military had driven militants out of the key central towns of Diabaly and Douentza on Monday.
But on one shady street corner in Bamako, university lecturer Yacouba Diallo, 30, who'd come for his customary afternoon glass of foamy bittersweet tea, wasn't sure that the Islamists could be so easily eliminated. He fears that once French troops depart, the threat will reemerge.
"The Malian military has been tested in this war and found wanting. Everyone knows that if there was no French intervention, the Malian army couldn't have resisted the jihadists," he said, downing the small glass of strong tea in a gulp.
"When I was young, I thought we had one of the strongest armies in the region, but with this war, I saw otherwise. I was shocked the army couldn't stop the Islamists' advance."
Like many Malians, Diallo is experiencing a crisis of confidence in the Malian state and its army. For him, the rapid retreat of the militants in the last few days isn't quite enough to erase the recent terror at the prospect of them reaching the capital and taking power, a fear that took shape as the rebels advanced southward this month, swiftly seizing territory.
The fear intensified after the Islamists overran the town of Konna on Jan. 10, threatening Mopti, about 140 miles from Bamako, and nearby Sevare, which is important for its major airport.
It was terrifying at the time, but sporting goods store owner Mamadou Traore, 41, who carries the latest smartphone in his pocket, can laugh about it now.
"Everyone was just expecting to see them here in Bamako. Everyone would have had to give up smoking," he said, chuckling huskily. "And everyone would have cut their pants short because that is what the Islamists say." (Some Muslim fundamentalists believe that a man's garment should not be worn below the ankle.)
Three militant groups — Ansar Dine; the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, known by its French initials, MUJOA; and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM — remain in the northern towns of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal, according to Alexis Kalambry, editor of Les Echos newspaper in Bamako, whose journalists are filing reports from the north.
After the fall of Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi in 2011, militias swept across Mali's porous border with what activists say were truckloads of looted weapons, eventually launching a rebellion.
They took advantage of the chaos and paralysis that followed a military coup in Mali last March, seizing control of the country's north. Nomadic Tuareg fighters, under the banner of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, launched a push to create an independent Tuareg homeland, but they were soon driven out by Ansar Dine and other extremists, who imposed a strict interpretation of Islamic law that is at odds with local custom.
Under that interpretation, they have been stoning people, amputating limbs and placing severe restrictions on women's clothing and movement.
France has deployed 2,150 troops out of a planned 2,500 in an effort — highly popular in Mali — aimed at driving out the Islamists, restoring the country's territorial integrity and stabilizing it politically. French flags are on sale in the capital along with the flag of Mali, which is being raised to celebrate the nation's participation in Africa's international soccer tournament, the Africa Cup of Nations, underway in South Africa.
"I really appreciate the bombing by the French forces," said Traore, the sporting goods store owner, surrounded by shelves loaded with dozens of uninflated soccer balls. "Anything that happens to those jihadists is a good thing. They fight in the name of Islam but they are not good Muslims. They abused women; they amputated people's limbs. How can you call them Muslims?"
Ask him about reports of civilian casualties in the French bombings and he swiftly brushes it aside.
"It's impossible to protect all civilians when bombing is going on," he said.
Traore's business has not been affected by the war, but Mali's economy was hit by the collapse of the tourist industry after extremists last year captured the main tourist sites in the north, including ancient mausoleums in Timbuktu, and after several kidnappings and killings of foreigners in the Sahel region in recent years.
"With the terrorist advance, no tourists are coming, so the economy is depressed," said Diallo, the university lecturer. "We don't know how long will it be before tourists come back to the northern cities."
Many Malians hope the French will stay at least a year, doubting as they doubt that Mali's army can protect them from the Islamists, even with a planned 3,300-strong force of regional African troops, about a third of whom have arrived in Mali.
"When France leaves, the question is whether it is possible for Malian troops to ensure security. That's the big question," Diallo said.
"The few remaining rebels might not be able to face French and Malian troops in battle, but what's going to be dangerous is they are here now and we don't know where they are, and they can launch bombings and attacks on the population at any time," he said. "They can still be dangerous."