Mali, DRC and CAR: Some Lessons


The recent events in Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic have produced some interesting lessons that Africa’s leaders, political and military should be studying:

• The ‘Early Warning System’ either did not provide early warning of impending crisis, or no one paid any attention to it. Not one of those three crises developed suddenly; all were foreseeable, even if timings were not exactly predictable.
• The rebel forces in Mali and the CAR moved very quickly indeed:
• In Mali they were able to seize control of two thirds of that very large country in just 11 weeks;
• In the CAR the seized control of two-thirds of the country in just 19 days.
• In the DRC the rebellion sputtered along for several months, but then it took the rebels just one day to take the city of Goma.
• The response was in all three cases too slow, too indecisive and too weak. It is not enough to stop rebels, they must at least be driven back or preferably disrupted to the point where a renewed rebellion is unlikely in the near term.
• In all three cases the rebel forces proved to be rather better led, trained and armed than had been expected. The French learned this at the cost of a Gazelle shot down in Mali, apparently during a night attack on a rebel column.
• In the CAR and the DRC the rebels would seem to have enjoyed at least some measure of foreign support:
• The main CAR rebel force advanced westwards from the Vakaga province that adjoins Sudan, suspected of providing logistic support for the rebels now and in the past;
• The CAR rebels reportedly included in their leadership General Mahamat Nouri, a Chadian dissident involved in the two fast-moving, long-distance attacks from Sudan on N’Djamena in 2006 and 2008, and whose expertise seems to be reflected in the speed with which they moved.
• In the DRC there seems little doubt that Rwanda has provided training and logistic support to the M23 rebels.
• In Mali there is no sign of foreign support and no likelihood at all of support by a neighbouring country, but the rebels had clearly benefitted from weapons that became available during Libyan civil war, and the location of their first attacks equally clearly demonstrated their use of the borderlands of Algeria, Mauritania and Niger for assembly and the approach march.

None of this should have come as a surprise to anyone who had taken the trouble to consider previous rebel operations in the region, particularly the raids on Ndjamena in 2006 and 2008 and that on Omdurman in 2008, the various Tuareg rebellions in Mali and Niger, and General Laurent Nkunda’s operations in the DRC in 2007 and 2008.

It is also worth bearing in mind that rebel operations in the CAR and through the CAR into Chad have in the past enjoyed logistic support by transport aircraft landing at air fields in the CAR, while the Lord’s Resistance Army and Allied Democratic Forces guerrillas operating from the Ruwenzori mountains against Uganda were reported to have received air-dropped supplies as late as September 2010.

Future planning for contingency operations in Africa must, therefore, assume that the opposing forces will:
• Be well led, by officers capable of proper operational and, particularly, logistic planning (moving several hundred vehicles over several hundred kilometres of poor roads is an impressive exercise in logistics);
• Be at least reasonably well trained, with some very well trained people among them;
• Have a good selection of well-maintained infantry weapons as well as support weapons, including 107 mm rocket launchers and 120 mm mortars;
• Have some mobile elements, mainly ‘technicals’ with heavy machineguns and recoilless rifles, but also including some mounted 23 mm cannon and 107 mm rocket launchers and potentially captured armoured vehicles;
• Have good communications, using satellite telephones and radios for long-range links and hand-held radios for tactical communications;
• Use GPS for navigation and have at least some night vision goggles for surprise night moves;
• Be able to execute long moves over poor roads with surprising speed, seizing supplies locally as they move but potentially also enjoying aerial resupply;
• Use the territory of neighbouring countries as and when it suits their operational scheme; and
• May well enjoy at least covert support by a neighbouring country.

The time is over when it was safe to assume that any irregular force would be ill-trained, poorly-armed and ineptly-led; as is the time when tiny, lightly-armed regular forces could be safely expected to quickly disrupt and destroy or disperse such forces.

Looking forward, it is also important to note that in each of the three cases considered here, the rebels made the mistake, forced or voluntary, of pausing:
• Mali’s rebels stopped when they reached the central ‘bottleneck’, only resuming their advance nine months later;
• The CAR rebels took too long between bounds, losing the opportunity to take Bangui in a rush before the Central African Brigade could respond (assuming the French did not intervene);
• In the DRC the rebels did not focus on pushing through Sake and then south to seize Bukavu, or to take it in a separate operation; either of which would have made any response by the FARDC or MONUSCO extremely difficult.

It is not safe to assume that they, or other future rebels, will repeat that mistake.

Similarly, it is not safe to assume that light forces alone will always suffice; not when rebels must be expected to have automatic cannon and recoilless rifles that are lethal to unarmoured and lightly armoured vehicles. This is not a call for armoured forces, although it is worth noting that in several cases, such as Ndjamena, it was tanks that made the difference. But this is to say that some situations will require mechanised forces to ensure the requisite edge; taking a shotgun to a knife fight, as it were.

Quite clear also, is the importance of air power – for deployment, operational and tactical mobility, supply, reconnaissance and surveillance, and even close air support and sometimes air interdiction. In many situations only the mobility that aircraft offer, that ability to quickly focus or refocus combat power, can give the edge required to efficiently locate, track, outmanoeuvre and strike irregular forces. Difficult terrain is no exception, as demonstrated long ago in Malaya and elsewhere, albeit in a counter-insurgency rather than peace support context, and more recently in urban fighting.

Finally, with bandits, rebels and terrorists making as much use of telecommunications as everyone else, COMINT has a real role to play: General Dudayev in Chechnya, Jonas Savimbi in Angola and Carlos ‘the Jackal’ in Sudan were all located, tracked and pinpointed by monitoring their telephones. Dudayev was killed by a modified anti-radar bomb homing on his satellite telephone; Savimbi was ambushed by special forces positioned ahead of his track as revealed by his satellite telephone; and Carlos was tracked to an apartment in Khartoum by his cellular telephone and arrested.

Dealing with Africa’s rebels will require thought and planning, and the prompt and swift commitment of forces of sufficient combat power to be sure of a decisive edge. Anything less will, at best, produce an indecisive result and set the scene for future rebellion.

And, of course, after the military have done their job, the politicians must ensure that the underlying causes of rebellions are addressed effectively. Failing that, renewed rebellion is assured.