By Daniel Flynn and David Lewis
BAMAKO/KIDAL, Mali (Reuters) - The U.N. is being dragged into a mission in Mali likely to involve state-building as much as peacekeeping, as France looks to reduce its military footprint in the vast and poor Sahel state after defeating an Islamist rebellion.
The day Mali elected a new president this month, the French general who led the military campaign to push the rebels from its desert north flew back home, his job done.
That evening, the United Nations official now responsible for helping to rebuild the West African nation landed at the same airport in Bamako after visiting the cradle of last year's rebellion, his task only just beginning.
France's successful seven-month-old campaign to destroy the Islamist enclave has killed hundreds of fighters linked to al Qaeda and scattered others far across the Sahara.
But with Paris keen to wrap up "Operation Serval" quickly, and Mali's West African neighbors unable to keep the peace there alone, the U.N. faces what some people see as an open-ended mission with precious few resources.
How long the planned 12,600 U.N. peacekeeping force will take to roll out fully remains unclear. It is even less clear how suited the multinational mission is to a task which includes helping the government to reestablish itself in the north and eventually handing responsibility for security to Mali's army.
"We still need helicopters, engineers and transport planes and it is important that countries commit to supply that," said Bert Koenders, the U.N. Special Representative to Mali.
"The U.N. is here to facilitate the return of the state to north Mali and provide security until the army is ready to take over ... It's a mission which is likely to last a few years."
The speed of Mali's collapse last year testifies to the challenge. Tuareg separatists and Islamist rebels seized three northern regions, covering an area the size of France, in as many days as government disintegrated after a March 2012 coup.
This crisis showed Mali's political system, once hailed as a model democracy in a turbulent region, had been rotted to the core by graft and mismanagement. In the north, the state was overrun by criminal networks often involving local dignitaries, smuggling everything from cocaine to fuel and cigarettes.
Many Malians cheered the French intervention in January which halted an Islamist offensive towards Bamako. But with the imminent threat over, some are wary of foreign meddling and questioning the need for a massive U.N. presence.
One of Bamako's biggest hotels, the Amitie, has been turned into U.N. headquarters, with armored personnel carriers and blast barriers protecting the glass-fronted atrium.
"We do not need them here. They drive around town in their white cars without saying hello to anybody," said Yaya Diaby, 54, a Bamako artisan. "Since they came, there has not been the slightest clash. They have not had to intervene at all."
FRANCE TO STAY IN SAHEL
New President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who won 78 percent of the vote in a runoff on August 11 with a promise to restore Mali's national pride, must unite a broken country.
He needs to negotiate a lasting peace with the Tuareg separatists in the north, rebuild the state and get the economy back on track with $4 billion in foreign aid due to be released following the peaceful election.
Under the terms of a ceasefire deal with the Tuaregs in June, the Malian army has cautiously returned to the north but remains weak. In the town of Kidal, a Tuareg stronghold, government troops remain in a camp while U.N. peacekeepers patrol the sandy streets, daubed with separatist graffiti.
Soldiers from Senegal and Benin lounge in white U.N. trucks under acacia trees, while children shout "Long Live Azawad", the Tuaregs' name for their northern homeland. With separatist fighters also confined to barracks pending peace talks, U.N. troops say they have had little to do.
Rehatting African soldiers from an existing West African security operation in Mali gave the U.N. mission a headstart, but it is still at only half its planned strength.
With France still needed to provide much of the logistics, the planned reduction of its troop numbers is behind schedule. President Francois Hollande said in March that France would have halved its troop presence in Mali to 2,000 by mid-year, but it still has 3,200 soldiers there.
The U.N. mission has no helicopters and just four planes - two of them lent by Germany. Faced with inhospitable conditions and massive distances, it is painfully short of resources.
It has also been sapped by the withdrawal of troops by regional heavyweight Nigeria, which is fighting its own Islamist insurgency at home. A 500-strong brigade of Chinese soldiers is due next month but the lack of "enablers" such as engineers and helicopters mean it will take time for others to arrive.
Either way, Paris will be committed to Mali for some time. About 1,000 French special forces will stay to deter the return of Islamists. An attack on a barracks and a French-run uranium mine in neighboring Niger in May showed the threat remains.
"This could become a permanent force with a mandate to tackle Islamists across the region, particularly in Niger," said one Western diplomat.
BALANCING SECURITY AND DEVELOPMENT
Efforts to reform Mali's poorly equipped and ill-disciplined army are under way. An EU contingent of 560 soldiers is due to conclude a mission in March to train four battalions - or roughly half the army's fighting force of 6,000 men.
The EU contingent's commander Brigadier-General Bruno Guibert will ask European leaders to extend the mission by at least another year to train the remaining four battalions. A decision is likely by December.
"Nature loves a vacuum. If the Malian army cannot secure the north, then the Islamists will return," Guibert said.
The first battalion has already deployed to three towns in northern Mali, under the supervision of embedded French troops.
European officers are also working in army headquarters to strengthen the chain of command after last year's coup.
But diplomats recognize that the problems of northern Mali - both rebellions and organized crime - stem from corruption, poverty and underdevelopment, which will take years to correct.
"You won't solve security in the north until you can tackle the illegal economy," said Koenders, a former Dutch minister.
To provide jobs for northern Mali, France and the United Nations want to fast-track several development projects. U.N. sourcing rules are also being changed to allow work with local suppliers, ensuring the economy of northern Mali benefits.
Koenders says the U.N. will act as a facilitator for a peace deal revising ties between Bamako and northern Mali - a new "social contract" - which would devolve political power but put in place checks to prevent corruption.
Kwesi Aning, director of research at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre in Ghana, says this points to a dangerously broad range of tasks for a peacekeeping mission. State-building takes a decade, at least, he added.
President Keita, due to take office in mid-September, has said little in public about the U.N. mission, but his campaign stressed the need to prepare for its departure at some point.
Abdoulaye Niang, a local political commentator, said he had lobbied Keita and petitioned the Supreme Court to reduce the size of the U.N. mission and withdraw it from Bamako.
"A U.N. administration cannot come and run Mali. Malians will not accept this," Niang said, recalling how residents of Bamako had taken to the streets in January - just before the French intervention - to protest foreign meddling.
Last year, when West African leaders were trying to reverse the coup, angry Malians invaded the runway at Bamako airport, forcing several regional leaders to abandon a visit.
A U.N. official working on Mali said he was confident the mission would strike the balance between allowing Mali to get back on its own feet and not overstaying its welcome.
"We won't be there until Mali works like Switzerland. But we can stabilize the situation and bring it back to the state where the Malians can manage it themselves," he said.
(Editing by Pascal Fletcher and David Stamp)