The Trench has called attention to the reality that French officials have dramatically oversold the threat in Mali by claiming that its capital, Bamako, would have fallen by now without Paris's direct intervention. This observation isn't made in resistance to a well-planned and executed counterinsurgency, but to the raise awareness of a potential destabilizing factor in a mission with little margin for error.
As reported on Monday, the notion of an Islamist tsunami sweeping through the south and into the capital is militarily infeasible. Even gung-ho jihadists with minimal strategic skills would recognize the impossibility of Paris's narrative. Thousands of guerrillas would be needed to secure population centers on the way to the capital, located some 450 miles from their northern bases, and still possess enough forces to assert their authority in Bamako. A defensive force must also guard their northern and rear fronts, along with the cities under their control, further depleting the manpower available in the south. The best-case scenario of a fully-resource offensive would leave the Islamists with sporadic control inside and outside of the capital, and maintaining this authority on a permanent basis would require substantial reinforcements and supply lines.
The Islamists would be idiotic to believe they could take Bamako as easily as Paris predicted, and the French would be equally foolish to believe so. More likely, Paris has exaggerated the threat in order to justify a larger ground operation than any NATO member publicly announced in the run-up to Mali's intervention.
Based on Western estimates, the reported flow of jihadist recruits, the ability to conduct multiple operations in separate areas and the reserved tasked to defensive works, the Islamists' ranks appear to possess between 1,500 and 2,000 trained guerrillas. Washington, for its part, estimates a force of 800-1,200. Some African capitals have posited higher figures, but these are likely attributed to the hyperbole of their own frantic (albeit legitimate) calls for Western assistance. Reuters notes that independent estimates "on their numbers and their origin vary wildly."
"The numbers I have heard range from 100s to 1,000s, so it is clear that no one has much of a clue," a senior Western security official told Reuters.
A disturbing statement in itself, extreme estimates of 4,000-5,000 would still push the Islamists to their breaking point in the event that they storm Bamako. While measuring insurgent forces is never simple or completely accurate, one must obtain a reasonable estimate to predict their objectives. Interestingly, France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius believes that "the presence of French troops on the ground in Mali, an Islamic country, would not galvanize Al Qaeda recruitment in the region."
The latest reports have France pouring in 2,500 troops to secure the border until an equivalent number of forces arrive from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Nearly 800 French troops have already landed in Mali to repel the militants' immediate counterattack and prep the ground for ECOWAS's campaign in the north. They expect to greet their African comrades in the next two weeks, the current breakdown being as follows: 144 troops from Guinea, 300 from Benin, 500 from Burkina Faso, 500 each from Niger, Senegal and Togo, 900 from mission leader Nigeria, and an unspecified number from Chad.
Supporting these forces is a robust logistics and intelligence network of American, British, French, German and Canadian personnel. Paris has also inquired into the availability of the Saudi-dominated Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), whose reach in the Eastern Hemisphere continues to grow with every Western initiative (Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Egypt).
This joint force, if left intact, is capable of retaking northern Mali's population belt and inflicting heavy losses on the Islamists. The overriding question, from a strategic and tactical level, is what ECOWAS can do after the Islamists go underground to emerge at a later time - or when they resist beyond foreign expectations. Clearing is always easier than holding and building, and uncertainty will immediately set in if NATO pulls back early into ECOWAS's campaign. As Al Jazeera notes, the incoming African task-force will undergo further combat training with French and other NATO personnel before launching a sustained offensive. The result: a holding pattern between the north-south divide near Konna until ECOWAS can head north. This period will be dominated by NATO air strikes and ground raids on the Islamists leadership.
What French forces plan to do after ECOWAS crosses north remains unstated, but they will likely participate in both offensive and defensive operations with African units. On Tuesday U.S. General Carter Ham, the head of AMISOM, told The Wall Street Journal that the French campaign "may prove to be decisive," but added that aerial operations will be necessary until then. His "sense" tells him that "the French are committed and understand this will not be a short-term campaign." On the other hand, Paris has committed a large measure of force with the apparent hope that it can quickly smash the Islamists and leave ECOWAS to mop up.
"France is today in the vanguard, but within a week African forces will start to deploy on the ground," Prime Ministr Jean-Marc Ayrault said on Tuesday, telling reporters that "French forces won't have to bear the. Burden of fighting in Mali for very long."
No, just part of the burden for an undetermined length of time.