Tough talking and bombing aside, Paris's response in central and northern Mali has assumed a dangerously comical quality.
Over the weekend French officials repeatedly boasted that they had stopped the Islamists' advance southward at Konna and inflicted heavy casualties, along with substantial material losses, at their northern bases near Gao. Not long afterward, they also admitted that the militants' antiaircraft capabilities had "surprised" the war cabinet of President François Hollande, and the town of Diablay has now been seized after a "surprise" raid on its Malian garrison. French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian admitted (with obligatory embellishment) that the well-armed militants, "took Diabaly after fierce fighting and resistance from the Malian army, that couldn't hold them back."
The Associated Press was able to reach a local commander at nearby Niono before Diabaly fell. Once contacted after the battle, the AP reported that he sounded "almost desperate" in comparison to his previous confidence: "We feel truly threatened."
War is inherently complex, unpredictable and rapid; capabilities and intentions are often misestimated due to the fact that every side is trying to mask them. However French officials are publicly expressing the swings of a disturbing pattern. The beginning of NATO's long intervention in Mali has already launched as an emergency deployment rather than a coordinated assault with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and an elected Malian government, which remains stricken by the effects of March 2012's coup. Two wide-ranging objectives - defense of the south and intervention in the north - have been floated by Paris, a divergence noted by many regional observers.
Marina Ottaway, of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, warns, "The shortcoming of the French approach is that it's not clear what the next step is. They're just going in and stopping the advance of the rebel groups."
This assessment isn't entirely accurate since the bulk of French ground forces only need to remain operational until ECOWAS's task-force arrives (between 1-2 months) to secure Mali's middle region and push northward. The root problem is the insufficient size of ECOWAS's planned force, as 3,200 ground troops will need continual U.S. and French air support to cover Mali's northern territory - roughly the size of France. NATO's special forces will be needed to enable offensive and defensive operations, and are likely to increase their numbers unless other African states phase in reinforcements after the initial waves.
The fight will eventually be taken north by ECOWAS ground forces, and outside forces Mauritania and Algeria may decide to act from the west and north. NATO and the EU may be left off the official record as the U.S., U.K. France, Canada and other states respond with bilateral action. What remains unclear are NATO's force ratio and how long its contributors believe they have to stay in Mali, especially when they don't plan on informing the public for the time being.
“There has been no request, no discussion (within NATO) on the situation in Mali, the alliance as such is not involved in this crisis,” spokeswoman Oana Lungescu told reporters.
All available information suggests that NATO's muscle and expertise will be needed in greater quantities, and for a longer period of time, than its members are willing to publicly concede. The Islamist umbrella of Ansar Dine, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQIM) and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) suffers from military and non-military weaknesses that can be exploited, but the groups are also well-funded by drug and kidnapping profits. On Saturday the Prime Ministers of Algeria, Libya and Tunisia pledged to begin sharing intelligence and jointly patrolling their borders in response to the networks being established by al-Qaeda's loose fronts; Tunisia’s President Moncef Marzouki described his country as "a corridor for Libyan weapons."
Trained with dependable arms by veteran jihadists looking for the next Afghanistan, these forces cannot be caught totally off guard because they expected a NATO invasion since taking control of northern Mali. Their response is likely to be twofold. On one hand, hard fighting will be delivered in the form of mountain warfare along the Algerian border. Here AQIM has recreated a Tora Tora scenario around Kidal, in the Adrar des Ifoghas, by drilling into the rocky desert and constructing bases inside. Whether saved for first or last, this mission alone requires extensive aerial bombardment and ground combat.
Conversely, these bases have likely been built in order to be abandoned in time. While Ansar Dine's spokesman, Oumar Ould Hamaha, has taunted the French by egging them to "attack on the ground if they are men," the Islamists would be foolish to "welcome them with open arms." Such a plan is presumably intended for jihadist consumption, as it goes against the grain of unconventional warfare. They have already begun to disperse, vacating MUJAO's base in Douentza before French planes struck and moving west on Diablay to draw attention away from Mopti's central position. Frontal maneuvers on French troops should be an infrequent development. Although the Islamists are eager to fight undisciplined Malian troops and can score quick propaganda victories with French casualties, they will likely drag the fight on as long as possible to disrupt NATO's operation schedule and raise the cost of intervention.
And as J. Peter Pham notes, "by planting their flag there, it's now become the latest place to go if you want to fight a Western army."
All of these factors add up to a longer and more intense intervention than France is currently telling its public, yet Paris is equally guilty of exaggerating the Islamists' advance. Following the events in Diablay, Le Drian speculated that if Paris hadn't intervened five days ago to stop the Islamists at Konna, "Bamako would be today in the hands of the terrorists." Unless the Islamists' ranks have been vastly underestimated by the thousands, the situation described by French defense officials isn't militarily feasible or strategically probable. Diabaly is a modest town of 36,000, and assaulting the city makes sense from a guerrilla's standpoint - they will attack wherever NATO isn't, then move to where NATO moves from. This pattern necessitates the force saturation that NATO is wary of committing.
Diabaly is located on the road to Bamako, as French officials remind us, and all possibilities must be considered in war. However several major cities stand in the way of the capital, some 300 miles south, and the Islamists need to garrison each population center in order for their offensive to be more than an exercise. That leaves few guerrillas - troops that usually wage urban warfare on the defensive - to storm a capital of 1.5 million. They could hold no territory along the way and still lack the necessary forces to assert control in Bamako, as the demand for weapons will be exceeded and supply lines will be severed deeper inside the south. Either option also reduces the men assigned to defend the north, which remains their prize due to the territory's inaccessibility.
Nothing adds up on this side of Mali's equation except for France and NATO's desire to justify all of their decisions and actions, whether sound or not.
"Our assessment was that they (the rebels) were actually able to take Bamako," Gerard Araud, French ambassador to the United Nations, said on Monday. "So we decided that what was at stake was the existence of the state of Mali, and beyond Mali was the stability of all west Africa.nWe had no other choice to launch this military intervention."
The main dilemma in Mali was never if, but how.