Mali at War, Again
Leading from the front, and with no legal hassles.
4:01 PM, Jan 16, 2013 • By ROGER KAPLAN
Determined not to lose Mali to Islamist forces, France’s president Francois Hollande ordered a rapid deployment of air and ground forces in Mali to block well-armed and motivated fighters of the Ansar Dine movement led by the veteran Tuareg leader Iyad Ag Ghali from crossing the Niger river and marching on Bamako. Hostilities began with the seizure by Islamists of Konna, a pre-emptive strike against a French-led political-military build up in the region, whose explicit aim is to restore Malian sovereignty in the north, which was conquered last year when an alliance of Tuareg secessionists and Islamists loosely affiliated with al Qaeda drove out the U.S.-trained Malian army.
While Konna remains a battlefield, the enemy advance across the river appears to have been blunted, following repeated sorties by French Mirage fighters based in neighboring Burkina Faso; the jets also struck at Islamist rear bases in the eastern river city of Gao, taken by Ansar Dine and its AQIM (al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) allies last April, and other bases in Mali’s vast north, a region of predominantly desert and savannah terrain which the Tuareg claim as their historic Azawad (homeland).
The immediate French objective is to defend the Mopti-Sevare hub on the river, home to a military base and, more importantly, an air strip which the French need for their operations in the north. French forces reportedly also seized the air strip at Tessalit in the far northeast of Mali, and simultaneously convinced Algeria to let them use its airspace in conducting raids. This is no small feat on the diplomatic side, given Algeria’s fear of renewed French influence in the region.
However, AQIM claimed responsibility for kidnapping several French and Japanese oil engineers two days ago in Algeria’s southern oil fields, raising renewed fears that factions within Algerian security services are in collusion with the terrorists. The oil fields of the Algerian Sahara are protected by allegedly impregnable military defenses.
The initial successes of the French campaign suggest the French strategy is to contain the Islamist forces in the large expanse of the Mali “septentrion” (the north), then to figure out a way to conduct search-and-destroy missions – as Hollande himself stated (“destroy them or make them surrender”). This will ultimately depend on the cooperation of Algeria and Mauritania, neither of whom are members of the West African union (ECOWAS) whose members are formally on board with France. Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Niger, Senegal, Benin, Togo, and Cote d’Ivoire announced they would send contingents to reinforce a French expeditionary force expected to reach two thousand men by the weekend not counting air power. A Muslim Nigerian general has been tapped to lead the ECOWAS forces.
The U.S., which until the Islamist offensive a week ago was rather reluctant to speed up the liberate-northern-Mali campaign, gave its full support to the French counter offensive, with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta two days ago promising all support short of ground troop, as soon as the legality of U.S. involvement can be established. The French command has acknowledged that it needs U.S. surveillance and intelligence gathering capabilities, which is not without a certain irony given that the U.S. was by all evidence caught entirely by surprise when the separatist-Islamist conquest of northern Mali was launched in January of last year, despite several years of “partnering” with African militaries in general and Sahelian ones in particular.
French ground troops, which Hollande had emphasized throughout the fall and early winter would not be deployed in Mali, were very much in evidence in Bamako and around the western garrison town of Diabaly, which Ansar Dine and AQIM overran in an effort to draw French forces away from Mopti-Sevare, which is some 300 km away. The battle for Diabaly will be significant not only for the real estate that is at issue, but as a test of Islamist armaments, command and motivation, all of which reports indicate to be at a high level. It will also test the stated Mauritanian policy of using its forces to interdict and pursue all Islamist movements in the Malian west toward Mauitania.
A French general acknowledged that much of the Islamist power in Mali is a direct if unintended consequence of the Libyan intervention in 2011, which allowed Gaddafi’s Tuareg auxiliaries to abandon their paymaster with large stocks of modern arms and return to their ancestral homeland.