Mali: New Flashpoint on World Map
Andrei AKULOV | 18.01.2013 | WORLD / Europe, Africa

Mali: New Flashpoint on World Map

The battle to retake Mali's north from the al-Qaida-linked groups began in earnest on January 10 after hundreds of French forces deployed to the country and began aerial bombardments to drive back the Islamists from just captured positions. Malian government troops fought Islamist rebels on the ground. A French convoy of about 30 armored vehicles set out on January 14 for Diabaly, 350km (220 miles) to the north, a town captured by the rebels.

Actually a military operation had not been expected until September due to the difficulties of training Malian troops, funding the African force and deploying in the conditions of mid-year rainy season. However, Mali's government appealed for urgent military aid from France. The alarm was voiced and a state of emergency declared across the country after the al Qaeda-linked rebel alliance captured the town of Konna on January 6, a major base for the Malian military and a gateway towards the capital Bamako 600 km (375 miles) south. The militants hoped to deliver a «definitive blow» to the government by going further south.

French officials said the troops were involved in the operation code-named «Serval» after a sub-Saharan wildcat. At present France has reportedly some 800 troops on the ground in Mali and defense sources said their numbers were expected to increase to 2,500.

The intervention will end only after stability has returned to the West African country, French President Francois Hollande said on January 15, raising the prospects of a costly, drawn-out war against al Qaeda-linked radicals. According to him, France had three aims: stopping the «terrorist aggression» from the north; securing Bamako and safeguarding French nationals there; and enabling Mali to recover its territorial integrity. 

France emphasized the intervention complied with international law and had been agreed with Malian President Dioncounda Traore. The United Nations Security Council has unanimously backed France's military intervention. On December 20, 2012 the deployment of an African-led International Support Mission in Mali, to be known as AFISMA, was authorized for an initial period of one year to assist the authorities in recovering rebel-held regions in the north and restoring the unity of the country. On January 6 an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council called for the rapid deployment of an African-led force. After that it supported the French January 11 action at an emergency meeting on January 14. 

Leaders from a number of countries, including NATO allies the United States and Canada, have said they'll send troops or provide logistical support for the fight. Washington was weighing options in Mali, including intelligence-sharing with France and logistics support. Britain immediately supported the French move. The UK government has already committed C-17 transport aircraft and special operations forces. Germany is to contribute air projection capability as well. 

EU foreign policy Chief Catherine Ashton called on for «accelerated international engagement» and said the bloc would speed up plans to deploy 200-400 troops to train Malian forces, initially expected in late February. The EU also said it would support such a mission and expedite preparations for its own military training mission.

The West African alliance - ECOWAS said it was authorizing the immediate deployment of troops to Mali «to help the Malian army defend its territorial integrity.» The final details are to be approved only on January 19 at a ministerial meeting in Ivory Coast. Nigeria is reported to deploy 900 soldiers - slightly more than a full battalion - within the next 10 days.

Blaise Compaore, the president of neighboring Burkina Faso which is acting as a mediator in the Malian crisis, said his country would contribute a contingent of ground troops toward the African Union mission to retake Mali's north.

Mali, a cursory look

An ancient empire going back to the fourth century, the country was conquered by the French in the middle of the 19th century. After a brief experiment in federation with Senegal, Mali became independent in 1960. For several decades after independence from France, Mali suffered droughts, rebellions, a coup and 23 years of military dictatorship until democratic elections in 1992 followed by rapid economic growth. The country is among the 25 poorest countries though it’s the Africa's third largest gold producer and a major cotton grower. Although swathes of the land are barren, the country is self-sufficient in food thanks to the fertile Niger River basin in the south and east. Mali is rich in phosphates, tin, gold, marble, granite, manganese, uranium. Potable water and oil reserves have been recently discovered in the northern part of the country. Uranium and potential oil and gas deposits in the North-East are under the Tuaregs control. The gold and bauxites rich north-eastern areas are controlled by the Mali’s government. A chronic foreign trade deficit makes it nonetheless heavily dependent on foreign aid and remittances from Malians working abroad. 

The northern desert city of Timbuktu is an ancient trading hub and UNESCO World Heritage site that hosted annual music festivals before the rebellion. 

In the early 1990s the nomadic Tuaregs of the north began an insurgency over land and cultural rights that persists to this day, despite central government attempts at military and negotiated solutions. The insurgency gathered pace in 2007, and was exacerbated by an influx of arms from the 2011 Libyan civil war. The military coup last March plunged the country into chaos and paved the way for the Islamist rebellion. Soon after the coup, ethnic Tuaregs rebels and Islamist militants took advantage of the power vacuum to seize the northern part of the country. The groups with ties to Al Qaeda later toppled the Tuaregs movement, and now control two-thirds of northern Mali, an area larger than Afghanistan. Fighting in the north began in stages, most notably in January 2012. The Islamists are using arms stolen from Libyan armed forces storages, as well as the weapons abandoned by Mali's military when they fled their posts in the face of the rebel advance. Turbaned fighters now control all the major northern cities, they have imposed a nightmare of public tortures, acts of cruelty rarely heard of before on the helpless local population. 

If the country is disintegrated and becomes a safe haven for terrorists of all kinds, then the whole Sahel region could be affected by spill over since borders are not clearly defined and armed terrorist formations can freely operate over a wide area. Mali is situated not far from the Mediterranean so the events have direct relation to European security. 

Prospects for military operation

A military operation was to be launched before the rainy season in the spring, so the time is ripe to do it. It is to start with the concentration of forces around Bamako. Mali’s 5000 strong ground force supported by 3300 strong ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States) contingent supposed to be combat ready pretty soon. Algiers, Mauritania, Chad and Nigeria are to join. According to plans, the forces are to spearhead the intervention backed up by substantial logistical and financial support from France, the EU, leading NATO members, including the USA and Canada. With the international support they will take over the Timbuktu - Gao region stabilizing the north. Air strikes and special operation forces are to carry out the brunt of work. There will be a series of concerted operations by Malian, ECOWAS and, possibly, a broader African Union, contingents with a French-led Western force doing its best to emphasize its support role to fill remaining gaps, something hard to fully comply with. The French involvement in combat is inevitable, as is confirmed by the ongoing operation, the issue is the scope. France is a leading nation here, it has airpower and hundreds of troops deployed in Senegal, Ivory Coast, Chad and Gabon. In case the northeast Mali and the arid Sahel could become a safe haven for extremists France is a prime target as the former colonial ruler of countries across the region. The EU is sure to intervene in some capacity, but working out the details of even a small mission appears to need time. The United States is to be engaged in intelligence gathering and distribution missions with drones and SOF capability. The American military holds a network of major air bases in Italy, Spain and other western European countries and could back the French military intervention by providing it with refueling tankers and other logistical assistance. Previously, the US had raised alarms about the militants in Mali, blaming them for involvement in an attack against the American Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. 

The operation will not be plain sailing. The peacemakers will have to face harsh geography, weather and the Islamists’ guerrilla tactics. The rebels showed they can hit back, dislodging government forces from Diabaly, 350 km (220 miles) from Bamako on January 14. There are thousands jihadists on the way to reinforce the radical forces in the north coming from the Western Sahara, Sudan and areas adjacent to the Algiers’ border. The Islamist ranks are swelling with both Malians and foreigners. They’ll offer fierce resistance; like in Konna at present. The Saharan terrain is not only a nightmare for conventional warfare, it is also lucrative to control, a prime trafficking route for cocaine and other items, giving the groups money for recruitment and services. The sheer size of the desert region will require formidable logistics and airpower. There is little appetite amongst the world's major powers for sending their own soldiers into battle in strange, foreign lands. 

The silver lining is the hard won experience in Somalia, where training, logistical support and funding for African Union troops has pushed the Islamic militant group al-Shabaab to the brink of defeat. One more good news is that before the combat actions started the Tuareg delegations had visited the EU. They came out in support of democracy and assured Al Qaeda was an enemy. On January 16, an official of the separatist Tuaregs organization, the MNLA, told BBC the group was ready to join the fight against their former allies, the Islamist militants.

There are three very important problems for the military to tackle: 

First - it’s hard to distinguish the Tuaregs from Islamic extremists, especially for pilots striking targets on the ground. They look the same. But if the Tuaregs are shot at, they may be pushed to the radicals side. It’s very difficult to adapt the Rules of Engagement (ROE) accordingly. 

Second – there are a few hundred (no exact figure is known) shoulder-fired, low-altitude portable Strela, Strela-2 air defense systems vanished from Libya’s government depots. The weapons are likely to be in Mali. It means the air supremacy of the intervention force will be limited, at least at low altitude (where it’s needed most of all). 

Third – controlling borders with Algiers, Libya, Sudan, and Niger is crucially important, otherwise the conflict would spread. A few thousand troops are not enough to effectively fight rebels and secure borders. Perhaps if the African Union adds more strength to the international force this mission could be tackled with efficiency. 

According to the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy and Common Security and Defence Policy there were attempts to create rapid reaction forces like Eurocorps, Eurofor, Eurobattle group - the formations we all have heard so much about for so many years. Still, somehow, nobody remembers about them at crunch time. Like the much talked of NATO Response Force (NRF) has never been mentioned in the news coming from Afghan battlefields. So many rapid response formations on paper, none at hand when the time comes! By the way, the Euro Army is an interesting project to think about. It’s open for non-EU members (like Norway, for instance), that is it can encompass those who have no wish to join NATO, Russia for instance. But that’s another story. The idea is yet to take shape. Back to the subject, the fact we face today is that Europe (the EU to be more exact) has failed to respond really rapidly in Mali, because there is no force capable of power projection on short notice even when the situation has dragged on for some time. It was clear a few months ago the intervention was inevitable. In October the UN Security Council passed a resolution clearing the way for the deployment of foreign troops to the troubled nation. It gave West African nations 45 days to offer details of a plan for military intervention. France, the EU were supposed to provide support. So it had been known very much in advance there would be a need to intervene, still many decisions appear to be taken off the cuff at crunch time. ECOWAS and the African Union are no greenhorns, there are dry behind the ears seasoned warriors, still they say more preparation is required when there is no time to lose. 


NATO went beyond the UN resolution 1973 in Libya against Russia’s and China’ warnings not to do so. The NATO’s intervention spurred a domino-like effect across Africa’s Sahel region. Now we all face the implications. One nation gets set on fire after another. Various North African regions are glued together by a delicate balance - due to the messy colonial legacy inherited. Instability in one African country can lead to major instabilities throughout the region. A dangerous chain reaction has been started. Now Mauritania, Niger and Algeria are targets for intervention. Should Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb be successful in carving out holdings in northern Mali, it will only be a matter of time before they begin crossing into Algeria. The situation had been serious enough even before the Mali events. Algeria, Mali, Niger and Mauritania formed the Joint High Command Operational Centre (CEMOC) in 2010 to address the threats from organized crime and Islamic armed groups. The events in Mali spilled over to Guinea-Bissau, which immediately saw a coup d’état of its own in mid-April. The next country at risk could be Morocco with regards to its Western Sahara issue… The Western Sahara has long been a contentious issue in the region, with Morocco and Spain being key players in this crisis. The situation is complicated and is fraught with the disastrous consequences, requiring great effort to prevent. 

Tags: Al Qaeda  NATO  Africa  Algeria  France  Mali