* France began airstrikes against rebels last week
* Ground war set to escalate, French encircle rebels
* Algerian intel about Ansar Dine was wrong -diplomats
By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS, Jan 18 French troops' initial
clashes with Islamist militants in Mali have shown that the
desert fighters are better trained and equipped than France had
anticipated before last week's military intervention, French and
other U.N. diplomats said.
The realization that the fighting could be bloodier than
anticipated in the weeks -- or months -- ahead might make
Western countries even more reluctant to get involved alongside
France. French officials, however, hope it will
rally their allies behind them, diplomats say.
"The cost of failure in Mali would be high for everyone, not
just the people of Mali," an African diplomat said on Thursday.
Like the other diplomats, he spoke on condition of anonymity to
discuss sensitive military and diplomatic issues.
The seizure of dozens of hostages in neighboring Algeria,
where Algerian troops launched a military operation to rescue
the captives from "diehard" Islamist militants at a desert gas
plant, also raises the possibility that Islamist violence could
snowball beyond Mali's borders.
The diplomats were speaking after French forces had their
first encounters with Islamist fighters in recent days. The
ground war appeared headed for escalation on Thursday as French
troops surrounded the town of Diabaly, trapping rebels who had
seized it three days ago.
"Our enemies were well-armed, well-equipped, well-trained
and determined," a senior French diplomat said.
"The first surprise was that some of them are holding the
ground," he said, adding that others had fled during six days of
French air strikes aimed at halting the militants' offensive and
preventing the fall of Mali's capital, Bamako.
French, Malian and African forces are facing off against an
Islamist coalition that includes al Qaeda's North African wing,
AQIM, and the homegrown Ansar Dine and MUJWA militants. The
motley mix of Tuareg rebels, Islamists and foreign jihadists has
been united by the threat of foreign military intervention,
which the Security Council called for last month.
Some of the militants are believed to have been trained and
armed by the government of late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi,
who was ousted and killed by rebels in a 2011 civil war.
FOG OF WAR
A number of diplomats said it was clear that the initial
French assessments of the militants had underestimated their
strength. It is a view that French officials do not dispute.
"They are better trained, I think, than the French had
anticipated at the beginning and are fighting harder than had
been anticipated," a senior Western diplomat said.
Other envoys noted that the 2,000 promised Chadian troops,
who are known for their desert-fighting expertise, have yet to
arrive and it remains to be seen how they will perform.
Diplomats said that the overly optimistic assessments of the
Islamists were understandable in what several envoys described
as "the fog of war," where clarity is rare and precise
information and accurate intelligence are often hard to come.
The senior Western diplomat said there was nothing to
suggest the French were being overwhelmed on the ground and
pointed to the achievement of Paris' initial objective, which
was halting the militants' offensive.
"They feel that they took the decisions that they had to
take in the short term," he said.
"But inevitably in these situations you never quite know
what the outcome's going to be, or what the consequences are
going to be, or what the exit strategy is. But they have been
successful in protecting Bamako, which could have fallen."
Nicolas van de Walle, a professor at Cornell University,
said the rebels have demonstrated "superior knowledge of this
very difficult terrain, their ability to slip across foreign
borders and their impressive mobility."
French forces total 1,400 troops, Defense Minister Jean-Yves
Le Drian said on Thursday, and their numbers are expected to
rise to 2,500. Foreign African troops have also begun arriving.
INCORRECT ALGERIAN INTELLIGENCE?
Northern Mali fell under Islamist control after a March 2012
military coup in Bamako triggered a Tuareg-led rebel offensive
that seized the north and split the West African nation in two.
Last month, the U.N. Security Council approved an
African-led force to help Mali's government reclaim the north.
That force is to be comprised of up to 3,300 troops, but is not
expected to be deployed in the north before September.
The French and others have called for an acceleration of the
force's deployment in light of the emergency Mali is facing.
So far the entire Security Council - including the typically
skeptical Russians - are supporting the French, diplomats say.
Despite that diplomatic backing, envoys say that Western
nations have offered France little of the logistical support it
has requested. The United States agreed to France's request for
airlift capacity for troops, and U.N. diplomats said Paris was
still hoping Washington can provide drones and aerial refueling
The surprises about the Mali conflict have not been limited
to the militants' behavior on the battlefield, diplomats say.
Before the Islamists launched their offensive earlier this
month and threatened to take Bamako, Algerian intelligence had
concluded that elements of Ansar Dine would be open to
negotiations and would not fight alongside AQIM and others.
That assessment proved incorrect.
"It was believed that there were links between Ansar Dine
elements and elements of Algerian intelligence," a diplomat told
Reuters. "But those links appear to have vanished."
Algeria's U.N. mission did not respond to a request for
The Algerians are allowing their former colonial masters,
the French, to use their airspace, which U.N. diplomats say is
no small matter and shows Algeria's commitment to supporting
France's efforts in Mali.
Algeria has much at stake, given that it does not want the
Islamists in Mali to retreat to its territory, where they could
carry out operations like the one on Wednesday in which
militants seized dozens of hostages.