- - Sunday, April 21, 2013

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

In January, French President Francois Hollande responded to interim Malian President Dioncounda Traore’s urgent request for military help to keep Islamists from advancing to the capital, Bamako.

Since then, the coalition of French and African troops have driven Islamist extremists affiliated with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa from the northern towns of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal although sporadic suicide bombings have continued.

On April 11, Malian Prime Minister Diango Sissoko visited Gao, the highest-ranking government leader to do so since the French incursion in January. His mission was to thank Malian troops and reassure the 60,000 residents that elections to form a national government would go forward in July.

The plan includes restoring a government presence in the town and more security: When the Islamists took over northern Mali in March 2012, government officials fled, leaving village leaders to fend for themselves.

Malian government leaders fear their army cannot resist the Islamists alone. Mr. Sissoko said that French troops need to stay, at least until stability is achieved.

But reports indicate that French and Chadian troop withdrawals already have begun.

France has stated it wants to reduce its troop presence in Mali from 4,000 to 1,000 by year’s end. Mr. Hollande said on the record that “the planned July elections are paramount,” and agreed to keep an adequate troop presence to secure the elections. Mr. Hollande also has said that French troops will remain in Mali “until the Islamists are completely eradicated.”

A stumbling block to the elections could be the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the mostly ethnic Tuareg militant group that has controlled the northern town of Kidal, close to the Algerian border.

When French troops liberated northern towns, they allowed the Tuareg separatists to re-enter Kidal, their former stronghold. The Malian army was excluded, at the request of the MNLA, fearing reprisals by Malian soldiers. The Tuaregs have refused to lay down their arms and drop their claim of independence over Mali’s northern territory insisting they be given greater autonomy.

A week ago, Mr. Traore formed the Dialogue and Reconciliation Commission under the leadership of Mohamed Salia Sokona, the former defense minister and Malian ambassador to France. Thirty community members were appointed to serve on the commission.

Dialogue must begin to achieve national unity with all factions participating in free, fair and transparent elections.

Having allowed the MNLA to retake its former stronghold, the French now need to persuade the separatists to enter into negotiations to unify the country and not seek autonomy. The MNLA denied Mr. Sissoko access to Kidal when the prime minister visited northern Mali.

“The citizens deserved to hear from the Mali leader such exclusion is without merit,” Yeah Samake, mayor of the southern Malian town of Ouelessebougou, told me. “The MNLA needs to follow the road map established by the National Assembly.”

Some diplomats have expressed concern that an inclusive election can be held because there is a lack of government presence in most of Mali’s northern towns.

To add to the concern, Pentagon officials recently told a Senate Armed Services subcommittee they believe Mali’s military will not be able to deal with continuing Islamist threats when the French troops withdraw from the country, which would put the elections in jeopardy.

A U.N. Security Council diplomat told Reuters, referring to the 12,600 U.N. peacekeepers proposed for stability in Mali: “You can’t ask the blue helmets to engage in counterterrorism.”

This means the U.N.-backed African forces will continue to need the support of French troops to establish lasting security and stability in Mali.

• John Price is a former U.S. ambassador to Comoros, Mauritius and the Seychelles islands. He currently serves as a resident scholar at the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics. He is the author of “When the White House Calls,” and regularly writes commentaries on Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.