While Islamist militants lack key advantages in guerrilla warfare, namely popular support amongst local Tuaregs and other ethnicities, their networking has built a formidable unit capable of generating long-term instability in the Sahara. The three-headed hydra of al-Qaeda In Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and Ansar Dine fit together neatly so long as their agendas maintain unity. AQIM and MUJAO's banners have given the alliance immediate cache within the global jihadist network, turning Mali into the new hotspot for West African and the Middle Eastern recruits. They also bring heavy arms, technical expertise and the financial resources secured from kidnapping and cocaine trafficking, an industry linked to corrupt governments along the African coast.
Meanwhile Ansar Dine counts enough Tuaregs in its ranks to usurp the opposing National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), and provide its regional counterparts with local guidance.
Together the three groups are entrenching themselves in an environment favorable to guerrilla warfare, an area dubbed “the largest territory controlled by Islamic extremists in the world" by U.S. Senator Christopher A. Coons, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee. Mali's northern desert, though generally unfavorable to guerrillas, is rendered more useful by its sheer size and the means necessary to secure it: a large air force, saturated ground patrols, barrier walls and a strong central government. Mali's desert is further broken up by mountains that AQIM has already embedded itself within. Most distressing of all, the militants could disperse after the initial skirmishes and wage a grinding war against an underresourced opponent.
"You cannot really fight a conventional war there," says Abdallah Baali, Algeria's ambassador to Washington. "Your enemy will vanish in the desert before your eyes."
The international community, on the other hand, is more disorganized than they give the appearance of. Many pieces are technically coming into place within a French-led UN mandate, including 3,000 troops from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), but uncertainty has overwhelmed their planning. At face value, 3,000 troops won't be enough to clear the north of an estimated 1,500 militants, and then hold the territory until Mali's government can reestablish authority. The capital may need several years to sort itself out and regroup militarily, a time-line that exceeds current UN expectations. Both Western and African capitals realize that a sizable air operation is necessary to compliment ECOWAS's ground force, a demand that they tacitly accept but have yet to approve of.
Neither side seems clear on the details of Western air support, and heavyweight Algeria remains unconvinced of an intervention's prospects.
Additionally, the U.S. response is being obstructed by international protocol and U.S. law, which prevents direct military assistance to Mali until a democratic government can be restored. Western powers hope that Mali’s army can match an international force in troops and take the lead in the field, necessitating an enormous training program and all of the infrastructure that goes with it. Problematically, the Pentagon must funnel equipment and financial aid through West African nations and the European Union. At this rate, the most they can hope for from Mali's army is local assistance - not a force capable of assuming the lead in combat operations.
“That’s a pretty significant impediment, and we’ve got to figure our way through that,” Army Gen. Carter F. Ham, the commander of AFRICOM, said Monday during a lecture at George Washington University.
Militants encounter no such impediments, only checkpoints to the outside world.
As a result, widely varying dates have been thrown into the international media by African leaders, Western diplomats and international representatives. Some reports place the start of an intervention in late January; in Paris to strategize with Francois Hollande, Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara told Europe 1 on Wednesday, "we hope to organize this intervention in the first quarter." Generally speaking, African and Western governments desire the quickest response possible to a major international crisis, but lack the resources to immediately respond and have thus cornered themselves in the near term. Some AU leaders, such as Niger's Mahamadou Issoufou, also want the UN-ECOWAS process accelerated faster than others, piling friction onto anxious but hesitant Western capitals.
Even Ham, one of the region's most gungho actors, just admitted that an intervention today (meaning the next three months) "would be unsuccessful." For good reason, Herve Ladsous of the UN Peacekeeping force told a Wednesday press conference, "Nothing could be done before September, October" of 2013.
Unless these reports form a disinformation campaign against the Islamists - and this doesn't appear to be the case - President Idriss Déby of Chad sums up the international situation most accurately: "There is total confusion."