Following the unanticipated capture of the town of Konna by MUJOU (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa) militants on January 10 this year, and militants advancing to just 20 km outside of Mopti, a Malian military garrison, Malian authorities requested military assistance from the French government. With approval given, the French military launched operation Serval with the aim of stopping a possible militant advance on Mali’s capital of Bamako.
This surprising development follows months of negotiations by West African and European nations aimed at resolving the Malian conflict that started initially as a Tuareg insurgency in the north of Mali at the beginning of 2011.
The current military conflict in Mali can be traced back to several subsequent Taureg rebellions in the north of the country. Following one of these rebellions and its defeat by the Malian military in 2009, Tuareg rebel leader Ag Bahanga took up refuge in southern Libya with the permission of the then Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. It was widely accepted that Ag Bahanga was on Gaddafi’s payroll as he had used the Tauregs on several occasions as his own private militia in previous wars in Chad.
Following Gaddafi’s subsequent defeat by NATO supported forces in late 2011, Ag Bahanga decided to return to Mali and to start another Taureg rebellion in the North. He convinced fellow Tuareg officers in the Libyan army to abandon their posts and to return to Mali with as much weaponry as they could possibly carry, including ground to ground and ground to air missiles, BM21 rocket launchers and BTR60 armoured vehicles.
The Tauregs started their rebellion in early 2012 under the name of the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad), Azawad referring to the geographical area in northern Mali traditionally claimed by the Taureg as their homeland. Surprise was a given, and the MNLA quickly drove the ill-prepared and -equipped Malian military out of Northern Mali. Afterwards the MNLA unilaterally declared Azawad independent, covering an area of nearly 60 percent of the total Mali.
Following the MNLA victory in Northern Mali, the Malian military overthrew the government, claiming that the government was indecisive in its actions towards the Tuareg rebellion, and that it did not provide the necessary material and political support for the military in order for them to handle the uprising. This, however, only led to a worsening of the already existing political crises faced by Mali, and weakened the Malian military even further.
At the same time Islamic militants, who had operated for years in Mali, used the situation of lawlessness in the north and the apparent weakness of the new Malian government to their own advantage. Initially allied with the MNLA, they quickly overthrew the Tuareg in the north and installed an extreme form of Shariah law in the area, resembling something similar to that that was experienced under Taliban rule in Afghanistan pre 9/11.
As the Tuareg started fleeing south from the Islamic militants, the international community, and especially European nations, became increasingly concerned that northern Mali could be used as a training ground for international terrorist and as a springboard to launch attacks on Europe from.
Current militant actors
There are three main militant groups acting within Mali. They are the AQIM (Al – Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), Ansar al Din, and the MUJOU.
AQIM is widely considered to be Al – Qaeda’s largest affiliate in the Maghreb region and has been present in Northern Mali since 2003. The group is said to have been created from the Algeria Armed Islamic Group (GIA) which is held responsible for a 1995 Paris bombing which killed 8 people. AQIM has since 2003 kidnapped and held more than 50 Canadian and European hostages, earning what is estimated to be well over $100 million.
Ansar al Din is a group consisting of mainly of local Malians. Their main objective is to implement Shariah law everywhere in Mali and the rest of the Islamic world. The group denies any direct link to Al – Qaeda, but it effectively acts as an umbrella organization under which AQIM operates from, very similar to the relationship between Al – Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
MUJAO is a dissident group which split off from AQIM but still works with the group from time to time. Unlike Ansar al Din, MUJAO incorporates members from both Mali and the rest of the Maghreb region and is said to be funded by local drug lords operating in Mali.
Military Forces deployed
Initial airstrikes by the French Air Force were conducted by Mirage 2000s supported by C135 air refueling tankers and Mirage F1CRs based in Chad. Also in support were Gazelle assault helicopters based in Cote D’Ivoire. These strikes were aimed at stopping militant advances towards the Malian capital and striking at militant command and communication centers, training camps, and rear bases in the north of the country.
It was during these first strikes that a French helicopter was reportedly shot down by militants and the pilot unfortunately killed. French Rafale strike aircraft also launched air strikes from bases in France with C135 tankers in support, after which they relocated to bases in Chad.
In total the French deployment stands at two Mirage F1CRs, six Mirage 2000Ds, four Rafales, one C-130 Hercules and one C-160 Transall, and a contingent of assault and transport helicopters. The two Mirage F1s are said to have relocated from Chad to Bamako in Mali in order to quicken reaction times and to lessen pressure on French air refueling capabilities. France has up to now committed a total ground force of 2 500 troops consisting also of French Foreign Legionnaires.
Other non-African deployments include two C-17 Globemaster III heavy lift aircraft from the UK and another provided by the Canadian Air Force. Germany has also committed to providing transport aircraft to ferry African forces, and Belgium has also given the go-ahead to deploy one C-130 to the operation. On Thursday the EU approved the deployment of 500 non combat troops to Mali in order to train arriving African forces.
The United States has also shown interest providing intelligence and transport platforms. American UAVs and intelligence resources have been operating in Mali for months already before the French intervention.
ECOWAS nations have mostly pledged ground forces with Senegal, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Togo each providing 500 troops. Nigeria has pledged a contingent of 900 troops and fighter jets. Benin has also promised 300 troops while Chad has committed 2 000 troops. It is, however, unclear whether these African states will be able to provide these forces and what role they will exactly play in Mali.
French president Francois Hollande stated during a recent visit to the United Arab Emirates that the French military had three objectives: firstly to stop militant advances, secondly to secure Mali’s capital Bamako and lastly to assist the Malian government and ECOWAS forces with regaining political and geographical control over the country.
The first and second objectives can be easily achieved by French forces. But achieving the third objective will be much more complicated for French and ECOWAS forces operating in an area nearly the size of France itself. Wrestling control from militants can be accomplished but maintaining security afterwards in the towns itself and surrounding areas will be no small feat, and the war will most likely evolve into a protracted low level insurgency type of conflict.
African forces deploying to Mali are not trained or equipped for such a conflict. Of the six African countries that have so far pledged military forces to Mali, only Nigeria and Senegal have some experience in counter-insurgency type of operations, with the Nigerian military battling Boko Haram and MEND, and the Senegalese military fighting the MFDC in its Casamance region. Also, none of them are trained in desert warfare, although Nigeria has gained some desert experience during AU Peace Support Operations (PSO) in Darfur.
Militant forces have shown some considerable military initiative and have proven to be far better equipped than some western intelligence sources originally suspected. Militants launched a counter offensive on January 14 and captured the town of Diabaly from the Malian military, and at the time of writing, French and Malian forces have still not recaptured Konna. Militants have also launched an effective propaganda campaign on the Internet.
Operation Serval could have some long term negative effects. A prolonged French military presence could lead to the militants convincing more fighters to join its extremist cause and uniting the different radical Islamic groups within Mali. It could also present a target to international Jihadists and attract even more international Islamist fighters to the Maghreb region. This would only prolong any conflict and reverse any positive advances made by French and ECOWAS military operations.
Militant groups could also expand their operations to outside of Mali and attack western targets. French authorities have already heightened security levels in France itself following threats by terrorist groups. Algeria and Mauritania have also improved security on their own borders with Mali. Algeria has for long expressed concerns that any foreign intervention in Mali could lead to instability in Algeria itself.
These fears became reality on January 16 as a militant group with apparent links to Al – Qaeda attacked an Algerian gas facility, leading to the kidnapping and deaths of several western and Algerian employees. The group claimed that the attack was in response to Algerian authorities allowing French warplanes to use its airspace to attack targets in Mali.
In conclusion, it could be said that international military intervention was the right thing to do. The global community can hardly afford for Mali to spiral down into a state of anarchy and presenting a chance for international terrorist groups to use the country as a base of operations.
Care, however, has to be taken to ensure that current military operations do not exactly achieve just this, and that the conflict does not expand into a wider regional war. Capacity building efforts by the international community also have to be sped up in order to ensure that the Malian government is given the necessary political and military capacity to ensure security within Mali.