When France eventually ends its military operations in Mali, the French military intends to position a rapid reaction force somewhere in West Africa to support African peacekeepers facing serious challenges to their authority by Islamist insurgents, according to U.N.-based diplomats familiar with the plans.
French diplomats have begun detailing plans with the United Nations, the United States, and other key powers for a so-called "beyond the horizon" force that would be ready to carry out combat operations within Mali in the event that the Islamic fundamentalist rebels threaten to return en masse.
Paris has not informed its allies where this new force would be deployed, but diplomats said it would most likely be in Senegal, Niger, or Chad, where France maintains military bases.
France's U.N. ambassador Gerard Araud, meanwhile, has sought to assure his counterparts that Paris will not abruptly pull out of Mali in the coming weeks, saying that the French military presence will be phased out gradually to allow time for a new U.N. peacekeeping mission to get its bearings.
The French military intervened in Mali on Jan. 11, after a coalition of local and foreign insurgents, including members of al Qaeda's North African franchise, launched a military offensive in a series of strategic towns in central Mali, raising fears of a dash to the capital, Bamako, where thousands of French nationals reside. The French force, which has grown to more than 4,000 soldiers, has reclaimed control of several cities that had fallen under control of the insurgents, but sparks of fighting have continued, particularly in the strategic northern city of Gao.
The discussions over the new force mark the first step in an intensive French effort to craft a diplomatic and security strategy that will allow France to reduce its presence in Mali, while ensuring that U.N. blue helmets will be in a position to maintain security.
Paris is hoping to begin work as quickly as possible on a resolution that would formally establish a new African-led peacekeeping mission, responsible for maintaining security in several northern Malian towns and support political talks between the country's government in Bamako and insurgents, thus paving the ground for national elections. French officials are hoping to convene a Security Council meeting as early as Wednesday to begin the push for a new resolution.
But the French are facing a major hurdle from Mali's rulers, who came to power as a result of a military coup and who fear that a U.N. force would not only be too weak to confront their northern enemies, but prod them into yielded power to a newly elected government. Diplomats say work on a peacekeeping mission cannot proceed until the Malian leadership makes a formal, and unequivocal, request to the United Nations for troops.
U.N.-based sources said that they expect France, and possibly other Western governments, to contribute a small number of staff officers in the eventual U.N. mission's headquarters. But the vast majority of troops will come from the region. There are currently more than 5,000 African troops from Chad, Niger, and other West African countries in Mali. The African troops, which are currently supporting the French and Malian military campaign against the country's insurgency, are expected to serve in the new U.N. peacekeeping mission.
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch