January 12, 2013

France's Rapid Burst Jumpstarts Mali's Long War

[Note: The current situation in Mali continues to accelerate within the fog of war:  "Hundreds of French troops drive back Mali rebels."]

Clearly deeming the situation as immanently unacceptable, the start of what should be a long foreign intervention has finally commenced in Mali's central river delta. Responding to estimates of 500-900 Islamic gunmen and their convoys, French military assistance has reportedly driven Ansar Dine and its allied muscle out of Konna for the time being. The bones of this information were jointly confirmed by Malian officials and French President Francois Hollande, who issued a national address on Friday to announce that France's operations will "last as long as necessary."

"French armed forces supported Malian units this afternoon to fight against terrorist elements," Hollande said from Paris.

The muscles and flesh of this information, though, remain obscured by the fog of war and must be pieced together as best as possible. Accepted as true is the presence of French military forces on Malian soil; Col. Abdrahmane Baby, an operations adviser for the foreign affairs ministry, confirmed that French forces had arrived in the country. Who landed, where they arrived, how long they plan to stay and what they specifically intend to do is left unanswered. It's possible that French forces had already arrived in the country on standby, and one must assume that standard soldiers were not called upon for the task at hand. France's Army Special Forces Brigade (known by the French acronym BFST), which experienced combat in Afghanistan, is the most likely unit to land first.

Beyond providing air combat controllers to multiply Mali's existing forces, the BFST would fulfill the initial training and scouting duties until NATO's first official batch of trainers arrives.

Also obscured is the status of Konna and how Malian forces dislodged the Islamist umbrella that moved on the city days earlier. French air-strikes were reportedly used to roll back militants and establish momentum for Malian forces, but no further information was provided to explain the actions of French soldiers. Paraphrasing the other officials willing to go on record, Lieutenant Colonel Diaran Kone simply told Reuters, "The Malian army has retaken Konna with the help of our military partners. We are there now."

For his part, Ansar Dine spokesman Sanda Ould Boumana denied that the group vacated Konna and its surrounding area. He claimed that “some planes came and bombed some civilians,” along with a mosque - overt propaganda to discredit the French. He would state matter-of-factly, "That’s France, and that’s the West. We are not surprised.”

The developing counteroffensive to Ansar Dine and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb's (AQIM) activities in central Mali holds the potential to accelerate a foreign intervention, or else spin it out of control at its launch. Delayed by all sorts of obstacles - U.S. laws barring direct support to Mali's coup-stricken government, the vast terrain of northern Mali and expected forecasts of its rainy seasons - the international blocs planned to unroll an intervention over the next eight months. Now the first NATO member is sliding down Mali's slope and threatening to pull other members in, even though Mali's government and military remains inoperable at the national level.

Washington and France had previously demanded that Mali hold elections, scheduled for April, before an intervention could begin.

Hollande also seems to be overselling the urgent threat of Mali's Islamists in order to justify a preemptive strike. Arguing that the "very existence of the Malian state" is at stake, France's president repeats his emphasis by adding the Islamists "are seeking to deal a fatal blow to the very existence of Mali." In reality the Islamist alliance has already dealt a fatal blow to Mali's sovereignty by sheering off half of the state, and the cost of re-securing the north outweighs the ease that it will lost. However The Trench believes that the Islamists are unlikely to pursue a genuine offensive into the south, so the threat of losing Konna and nearby Mopti is defensive-oriented. Capturing these areas and the air-base at Sevare would hinder an intervention into the north, and thus hinder its reunification with the south.

A full-blown march on the capital, Bamako, has no basis in reality.

Problematically in the near-term, the Islamists don't need to hold Konna at the moment and can leave the town alone while they target other areas in the Inner Niger. Once they withstand the initial air-strikes, they will likely take greater pains to disperse their forces in civilian areas. France will then be forced to add more troops, or else receive assistance from other NATO or AU forces (presumably the U.S. and U.K.), in order to provide defensive support and pursue several networks of militants; over-relying on air support is liable to backfire. Meanwhile Catherine Ashton, the European Union's (EU) foreign policy chief, has called for "accelerated international engagement" and said the bloc would speed up the deployment of 200 trainers, but organizing this process requires more time than coordinating offensive actions.

Furthermore, the Islamist coalition is likely to enjoy its own boost from France's involvement, and should receive an influx of recruits in the coming weeks. That pressure would add to the lobbying for more troops, but risks their deployment without a  defined time limit or the resources necessary to compete their mission. The air-strikes that will be used to supplement an initial force carry the potential of civilian casualties, and U.S. drones are likely to make an eventual switch from surveillance to targeted strikes. Mali's war will subsequently expand into a front along the boundary between north and south, and then degenerate into a multi-year conflict inside the north.

Ultimately, more rush will add to the international community's friction and could work in the Islamists' favor. Counterbalancing this force is vital to their success in central and northern Mali.

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