Earlier this summer, Mali’s Islamist militant northern rebels abandoned their southernmost position, the town of Douentza, some 100 miles northeast up the road from Mopti, where the Malian army had retreated this spring after being routed out of the northern two-thirds of the country.
But rather than moving into Douentza, the Malian army did not budge. Instead, pro-government militiamen held the town for one month before northern rebels belonging to the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa stormed down in vehicles and disarmed them without a fight in the beginning of September.
"Our army has been defeated in the north, humiliated and divided," said Ibrahim Garongo, the secretary general of the pro-government militia, Ganda Iso, or "Sons of the Land," who are based at a former youth camp outside of town. "We are here to support the army."
On Sunday, West Africa approved a plan to send 3,300 troops to Mali, where an area the size of Texas is now controlled by al Qaida-linked rebels after a military coup in March.
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The intervention plan will now go to the African Union, which could contribute even more troops, and then finally to the United Nations Security Council, which had given the West African bloc, the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, until the end of November to submit a viable intervention plan for consideration.
But the biggest holdup likely will not be getting enough foreign troops on the ground, but getting the Malian army up to speed after a military coup that tore apart its command structure and, to some degree, what little was left of its professionalism, said Western and African officials.
That it was a militia, not the regular army, that moved up to retake Douentza for one month shows just how far the Malian military has fallen. Ganda Iso is not a formidable force; its leadership estimates it has 1,200 men ready to fight, but it admits that it only has enough guns to undergo brief training, not to fight.
Yet it is the government itself that is encouraging the rise of the community militias, of which Ganda Iso is one of several. The Malian army has given the leaders of Ganda Iso homes in which to stay and assigned trainers to their training camps outside of town.
The official sanction of the private militia raises concerns about not just the professionalism of the intervention planned into the north, but also what the eventual outcome will be.
Ganda Iso, like all of the militias, is known to represent certain ethnic groups of northern Mali’s diverse bloodlines. The militia’s leaders speak superciliously of lighter-skinned Tuareg and Arabs, against whom the militia was originally founded years ago to fight. U.S. officials fear that a rushed intervention into northern Mali could tear apart its fragile social fabric, by turning a fight the West would like to define as Malian vs. extremism into Malian vs. Malian.
The Malian army has been in disarray for years, said a retired Malian military officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. "There is no training, no pay, no weapons," he said.
"Northern Mali will be a 10-year problem," said the retired officer.
Europe is discussing sending military trainers to help rebuild the Malian military so that it can lead the internationally backed offensive against the Islamist rebels. By law, the United States is prohibited from giving any aid to Mali after the military coup until it holds democratic elections, even though the country already has returned to civilian rule.
The approval on Sunday for 3,300 West African troops is the first concrete step in what is likely to be a long slog to retake northern Mali from the grips of a loose alliance of Islamist rebel groups that have held unchallenged control since earlier this year.
A spokesman for ECOWAS said it was premature to talk about a timeline for potential deployment.
"They are all pledged," Sunny Ugoh, a spokesman for ECOWAS, said of the 3,300 troops. "We are getting the troops ready. I know that the Malians have been training very hard."
As the world decides how to proceed, the Islamist groups that control northern Mali – including al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the global terrorist network’s North Africa branch – are busy recruiting locals and foreigners to join their ranks and defend their new safe haven. Recruits are paid well by Malian standards, thanks in part to the drug-smuggling routes through northern Mali, which are believed to provide the rebel groups with lucrative income.
West Africa expects the Western world to help finance the military mission as well as to provide logistical and aerial support, said Ugoh.
"Some of our partners have indicated that they are willing to help us with some of those elements," Ugoh said.
Despite the belief in some diplomatic circles that the foray northward into Mali’s harsh Saharan terrain will take months to map out, Ugoh said that once the African intervention boots hit the ground, there will be no more delays.
"As soon as they show up in Mali, the show is on," he said.