NIONO, Mali — On Saturday morning, a Malian commander painfully tried to explain why none of his troops had moved north despite a rebel retreat 24 hours earlier in a train of vehicles that had headed northeast to the desert.
"There is no enemy in Diabaly, but they may have scattered in the bush," Col. Keba Sangare said. "We are prepared, but we are waiting for orders."
On the road just a few yards away, a bus rolled past, so overflowing that men clung to the back for a ride. Where are you going? "Diabaly," the driver shouted back.
The Islamists’ retreat back into the shrub and sand from which they’d come appears to mark the end of the first phase of France’s new war in West Africa – and if there was any single lesson to learn from its short span, it was this: the Malian military is not going to fight this war, or at least not in its current form.
That’ll come as no surprise to policymakers who’ve spent months trying to figure out how to save Mali from imploding. Still, the scale of the Malian army’s failure in the face of the jihadists – who careen into battles amid shouts of "Allahu Akbar," winning them a reputation here for not fearing death – is startling.
France did exactly what it promised in its first week of operations in Mali, pounding the rebels from the air, forcing the rebels to withdraw and winning praise from Malians who reported that the French hit rebel trucks with only minimal damage to nearby civilian structures. Amazingly, there were no reports of civilian collateral deaths from the bombardments, even though the rebels tried to use civilian areas for shelter.
But even with the rebels gone, the Malian military hesitated to advance and hold down the position. Civilians returned more quickly. They also seemed to have better information.
"The rebels have all fled, so we are heading back," said Brahima Samake, whose graying beard jutted out from a window on the crowded bus. "The info we have, we are sure of it."
Friends in the nearby village of Dogofry had called him, he said, and told him that more than 45 rebel vehicles had sped through on their retreat northeast.
Sure enough, an hour later, Massako Konta drove his motorcycle into Niono, coated in dust from the journey from Dogofry. Asked if he saw the rebel convoy go through his town, he did not hesitate to repeat what he knew: 49 pick-up trucks, two larger trucks, and two heavier armored vehicles had passed through his village between 5:40 p.m. Thursday and 9 a.m. Friday.
"They drove with their headlights off. We stayed up all night counting," he said.
"The road is now clear," he said.
He pulled out his phone to show photos of the charred shells of pick-up trucks in Diabaly. "I counted eight destroyed trucks," he said. "They’ve left behind lots of armaments, too."
In order to take over Mali’s vast and harsh Saharan north, France will need ground troops willing to fight.
The Malian military similarly did not re-take Konna, the target of France’s initial airstrikes east of the Niger River, for several days, even though France had reported that rebels had initially been driven away. When Diabaly fell on Monday, local authorities admitted the Malian troops at two nearby military camps also retreated from the area without a fight.
That leaves France with two obvious options to push the battle into the rebels’ own desert turf – going on it on their own, with the Malian army only symbolically at their side; or waiting, likely for months, for West African troops from other countries to be assembled and trained into a battle-ready force.
On Saturday afternoon, a dozen Malian army vehicles drove north out of Niono and never returned. Col. Sangare, when contacted by phone, said he could not comment on whether they had entered Diabaly.
But residents here knew who to thank for the victory. Hours later, a large French convoy of over 20 vehicles headed north, led by four Malian trucks.
When the convoy returned two hours later, people chanted in the streets: "Vive la France, Vive la France."
Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. His reporting is underwritten in part by a grant from Humanity United, a California-based foundation focused on human rights. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @alanboswell