The acceleration of NATO intervention in Mali has left observers in a thick mass of war fog. Much like the water or air column that follows a body in motion, a wave of information has formed behind NATO's military activities as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) readies an emergency task-force. This wave is crushing everything outside its direct path, as is typical in warfare, and obscuring the ground situation in north-central Mali.
Further analysis will be posted as the information cycle allows.
For now a basic sketch of NATO's unfolding offensive must suffice, beginning in central Mali and expanding outward. At least 550 French air and ground troops have reportedly deployed inside the country as air strikes continue for the third day. A significant portion of these troops landed at the airport in Sevare, the predicted target of Islamist militants that had recently staged attacks on the nearby towns of Konna and Mopti. Malian forces regained Konna with the help of French Mirage and Rafale jets, working in conjunction with assault helicopters, but they would have needed French air-combat controllers in the ground. The war-zone around Sevare was quickly ringed by checkpoints and French ground forces have been deployed from Sevare's airport to Konna and Mopti.
Western sources are already "reporting" the unconfirmed death of Ansar Dine commander Iyad Ag Ghaly, a veteran Tuareg jihadist, but his loss is unlikely to imperil the group.
Using the Inner Niger as NATO and ECOWAS's forward operating position into northern Mali, French warplanes and helicopters have launched an air campaign to shock the Islamists across their territory. Mirages reportedly destroyed a government base that had been taken over in Lere, located on the delta's west side, while a series of strikes targeted bases in Timbuktu and Gao. The latter now serves as the headquarters of the Movement For Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). Air strikes are set to increase in the immediate future before tapering down in reaction to the Islamists' movements.
"Hundreds" of French troops have also been deployed to Bamako to "assess the capital," secure diplomatic personnel and aide French nationals.
Given the fast-moving uncertainty, these factors are worth monitoring in the run-up to Africa's next asymmetric land war.
One set of determining factors is the multiple objectives offered by French officials as they attempt to convince their own voters of Mali's just cause. On Saturday President François Hollande announced that current operations in Mali are "limited to preparing for the deployment of an African intervention force." The Defense Ministry subsequently declared that Paris's goal "is to lead a relentless struggle against terrorist groups," including the prevention of "any new offensive of these groups to the south of Mali." These objectives ultimately intercept: France must provide the force to block the militants' offensive actions and defend the border between north and south until African reinforcements arrive. 2,000 of the planned 3,200 ECOWAS troops are expected to land by Monday - 500 each from Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal - and NATO air operations will continue throughout their deployment.
How these strikes are interpreted by the local population - as the Islamists full responsibility or hostility towards the south and international community - has been decided for the immediate future. Residents have reportedly welcomed French flags in the sky and expect African ground forces to follow, sentiments that must be nurtured in order for NATO and ECOWAS's mission to succeed. NATO is currently operating without the support of a legitimate government or military.
A U.S. official also confirmed that Washington will deploy drones for surveillance purposes (easily armed at a moment's notice), and Britain has dispatched two C17 aircrafts to transport allied troops. Both powers prefer that France "take the lead" in what could be a long, messy war in Mali.
Underestimating Guerrillas' Capabilities
The joint NATO-ECOWAS force is rightfully viewed as vastly superior to the Islamist umbrella currently entrenching itself in northern Mali. However Western and African capitals should be wary of falling into a quintessential guerrilla trap: underestimating the opponent. Many negative things have been said of the Islamists' relative strength, how they only defeated a rag-tag Malian army, and how professionally trained armies will overpower them. This pattern represents the nature of insurgency; asymmetric forces are inherently weaker than conventional forces, and usually stronger in comparison to weak governments. Some insurgencies, such as Hezbollah and the Taliban, are more disciplined than others, which must evolve their capabilities or risk elimination from the actions of stronger governments.
A weaker insurgency is known to become stronger through the only school of war that is often available: direct combat. This phenomena was noted in U.S. observations of Iraq's insurgency and appears to be occurring in Mali.
After a great deal of talk concerning their weakness, French officials are either flattering Mali's militants or genuinely surprised by their abilities - which would be an inexcusable error and ominous sign of future events. How the Islamists fight NATO and ECOWAS soldiers on land remains to be seen, but the militants are putting their air defense weapons to immediate use. Western intelligence suspects that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) smuggled out a cache of Libya's surface-to-air missiles, potential fear-mongering that doubles as a real possibility. Heavy machine guns have also been mounted onto the Islamists' pickups.
"What has struck us markedly is how modern their equipment is and their ability to use it," said one of Hollande's aide, but another French official said that Paris expects a short campaign before ECOWAS takes over.
This reaction may come true - or suggests that NATO still has much to learn about the Islamists' overall forces and the non-military environment in Mali. Three different networks, operating with semi-independent agendas, have spent the last six months recruiting across Africa, the Middle East and South Asia in preparation for NATO's intervention.
Overselling Guerrillas' Capabilities
Taken together with this potential underestimate, politically overestimating the situation in Mali could generate more unexpected consequences in a country divided by its own government. French officials speak as though the capital was facing imminent danger, an assessment that The Trench disagrees with considering that thousands of well-trained militants would be needed to effectively sweep across the south. Building on Hollande's mixture of humanitarian and nationalist rhetoric, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius boasted that, "The Islamist offensive has been stopped. Blocking the terrorists... we've done it."
The Islamists had launched an offensive into the central delta but no one knows how far - they could stopped at Mopti. Yet French intelligence services claim they "detected preparations for what they described as a 'major offensive' organized and coordinated by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb."
Jean-Yves Le Drian, France's Defense Minister, unequivocally announced on Sunday, “There was a spectacular acceleration of these [jihadi] groups since Thursday. If no one intervened, Bamako would have fallen two or three days later. France is at war against terrorism.”
Instability and other uncertainties normally accompany the hype of war against terrorism.
Political Resolution Is Mali's Only Exit
Lastly, the concrete deployment of NATO forces will push a negotiated settlement even further away from reality. African capitals have invested months into pulling Ansar Dine away from AQIM and MUJAO, hoping at the least to sow division between networks. Now this possibility goes from implausible to impossible. Accordingly, NATO and ECOWAS must commit an even greater amount of time and energy to organizing a political-economic resolution with the north's diverse ethnic groups.
None of these challenges begin to address the present lack of government in Bamako.