Mobility is the essence of guerrilla warfare for all sides of an asymmetric conflict. Those actors that move fastest - on the military and non-military battlefields - emerge on top of their foe. The general objective for a smaller force is to outmaneuver, disperse, confuse and sever a larger force, which has resulted in the advanced technologies designed to track insurgents and terrorists. This arms race cannot be extinguished as long as conventional and unconventional forces enter the same spheres of influences, and each side enjoys advantages over the other.
In the case of northern Mali's Islamic trio, who have no use for international legalities, foreign powers are gasping to catch up as they dodge obstacle after political obstacle.
Last week the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), with assistance from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), claimed victory over the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), in the northeastern border-town of Malaka. The assault was staged as part of a wider campaign to drive the MNLA out of every position MUJAO and AQIM can locate, before the MNLA can assist the international force that is scheduled to arrive sometime next year. The MNLA has yet to concede defeat, instead countering that it killed many MUJAO fighters, because the loss of Menaka is a substantial blow.
This same process has now repeated in Lere, situated on the opposite side of northern Mali, after MUJAO and Ansar Dine encircled the camp for a week. MNLA spokesman Mohamed Ag Attaye admitted that the group's fighters had finally retreated to a base north of the town, similar to the MNLA's withdrawal from Menaka. Where the MNLA's parts will head next is uncertain; they will likely be forced north until they can regroup and stage an effective attack on the Islamists. Reports of their reinforcements have become semi-regular occurrences, as AQIM and MUJAO are drawing from Africa's regional jihadist network to secure northern Mali's population belt.
Holding Menaka and Lere also grants the Islamists control of northern Mali's entry points, in addition to Mali's section of the Niger River. This environment can be used for all sorts of guerrilla operations, from smuggling recruits to moving equipment to staging ambushes, and opens the possibly of river warfare.
Equally important is Ansar Dine's participation in Lere's siege. The group has entered into preliminary negotiations with the MNLA, arranged by Burkina Faso's President Blaise Compaoré on behalf of the United Nations and African Union, and even promised rid Mali of drug-trafficking, kidnapping "foreigners." However this outreach appeared hollow from the beginning, a basic guerrilla tactic to stall for time and influence Mali's overall narrative. To the point, AQIM commander Abu Mosaab Abdulwadood just released a videotape appealing to Malians and warning against intervention: "It can be solved internally, through reconciliation between Muslims, without having to shed a single drop of blood."
It's difficult to foresee any advance in negotiations after the simultaneous attacks on MNLA positions, meaning an international force likely to meet a three-headed hydra when it lands.
Western capitals are fortunate to enjoy relations with multiple political blocs in Africa. One wouldn't be totally wrong to speculate that the developing crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo is beginning to suck oxygen from Mali's response time. The pace of Mali's international plans is already running sluggishly due to the country's internal disputes, and the external shortfalls created by Libya's intervention and Syria's contingency planning. Now the DRC is further splitting the UN and AU's attention. The resulting irony has limited America and Europe's capacity to act in the immediacy, contrary to their long-term political and military plans for North Africa. Washington in particular intends to build "training" relationships with governments in the Sahel, complete with support bases, but the scale of Mali's crisis exceeded U.S. expectations.
As the situations stand, Western capitals have tasked a member the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the International Conference for the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) to mediate between the DRC and M23. That leaves the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to remain focused on northern Mali, but doesn't necessary alleviate the brain-drain on Western capitals or AU, which must respond to both crises. Meanwhile the Islamist network in northern Mali continues to freely expand and entrench, and victory is the best recruiting tool available to a foreign force. The locally-minded MNLA has fallen to Mali's losing side, overwhelmed by the same momentum that attracts fighters from across Africa and the Middle East.
These moves further increases the pressure on the UN, AU, ECOWAS and NATO to rush an already risky intervention.