France intervened in Mali to stop the jihadists’ offensive on Mopti and Bamako. Beyond, the plan is to rid the country from all terrorists. A serious challenge.
On the last 11 January, French aircrafts and helicopters bombed a column of jihadists rebels which had captured the day earlier the city of Konna, 700 km North of Bamako. During the first days of the operations, the towns of Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao held respectively by each of the three groups of the jihadist coalition, Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Touareg salafists of Ansar Din and the Movement for the Unity and Jihad in Western-Africa (MUJAO) were also bombarded by the French airforce.
According to Eric Denécé, director of the Paris-based Centre Français de Recherche sur le Renseignement, the « terrorists » wanted to take over Southern Mali in order to make impossible any operation of reconquest of the North of the country, where the djihadists declared an Islamic state, in May 2012. In the event of victory, which could have been likely without the French intervention, owing to the poor state of the Malian army, it would have been difficult for the jihadists who only boast from a few thousand fighters and several hundred pick-ups to administer the South of the country. But they could have create a total chaos in the government-held area, which would have dashed for a long time all hopes of reconquest. And he capture of the Sevaré airport, near Mopti, 630 km to the North-East of Bamako would have deprived international forces from one of the few airstrips which can be used by transport aircrafts.
We now know that the French intervention which bears the codename of “Operation Serval” was in the pipeline for quite some time. President François Hollande already stressed the need of an urgent intervention of support to the Malian authorities last September at the UN General Assembly. Yet, the operation of support from African states to the Malian army was scheduled for September 2013, said in November the UN Special Envoy to the Sahel, Romano Prodi.
But the recent attack on Konna changed everything. The Malian interim President Dioncounda Traoré immediately requested France’s military support which is envisaged by a bilateral agreement. A UN Security Council meeting on the 10 January gave a rubberstamp to the French operation by concluding that the Malian authorities had the right to seek every possible assistance and that the UN Resolution 2085 voted on the 20 December 2012, should be implemented as soon as possible. The Resolution calls for a coordinated support from UN member states to the Malian army to enable it to restore the authority of the stage on the whole territory. Resolution 2085 also authorizes the deployment of the African-led International Support Mission in Mali and the assistance to the reconstitution of the Malian Army from the European Union and other UN member states.
The first aim of Operation Serval, told the Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius at a press conference in Brussels on the 17 January is to stop the terrorists, protect European and other foreign nationals and also the capital, Bamako, and at the same time create the conditions for the implementation of international resolutions on Mali. But the reconquest of the North will be the Africans’ business, he said. But aims can change. Probably, because of the success of the first strikes, on the 20 January, the French Defence Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian revealed in an interview with France 5 Television that the aim now was the “total reconquest” of Mali. He announced new raids on the jihadists’ rear bases to prevent them to come back and said “no pockets of resistance” would be left. And Le Drian offered France’s support to help the African force to retake Timbuktu and the other cities of the North.
So far, the first strikes of the French airforce, combined with the deployment of ground forces columns have been quite effective. On the 17 January, the city of Konna was recaptured and a new battle has been taking place since on the Western front in the Diabali area where AQIM troops had tried to bypass the French army on the 14 January. Altogether, some hundred strikes were made by the French airforce during the first days which destroyed the ammunition and fuel deposits in several cities of the North. According to Eric Denécé, at least 100 rebels died during the first phase of the conflict.
Yet, the question now is what happens next. On the 21 January, President Hollande made clear that the French army will stay as long as necessary to defeat terrorism. But it could stay quite long. The Malian army is not operational and cannot cope with the enemy which boasts from weapons coming from Libya’s arsenals or purchased from arms traffickers with the proceeds of the sale of drugs, trafficking of human beings or hostages ransoms. The jihadists’ equipment includes beside the classical Kalachnikov and Dragunov snipers’ rifle, machine guns of 7.62 mm, 12,7 mm and 14,5 mm, RPG 7 rocket-launchers and even a few French Milan antitank missiles sold by France to Muammar Gadaffi and some SAM 7 Russian-made ground to air missiles. The rebels have dispersed themselves after the first bombardments and it is likely that they are going to take refuge in the “Adrar des Iforas” mountains, waging guerrilla there for some time. The area is enormous and well-suited to provide hideouts for the rebels who may also be tempted to seek refuge in neighbouring Mauritania.
Yet, the position of the French military and of their African allies may be easier than that of the ISAF coalition in Afghanistan, since the main Touareg group, the National Movement of Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) which was siding with the three jihadist movements when they took Timbuktu on the 1 April 2012, has since then split with them and has expressed its support to Operation Serval on the 14 January. But this support will not last very long, if the Touareg do not get recognition and guarantees from the Bamako government of an improved status of autonomy and support for the development of the populations in the North. The Bamako government’s failure to address these problems so far explains why some Touaregs have joined the Ansar Din group, who is led by one of them Iyad Ag Ghali
In addition, analyses Eric Denécé, the djihadists made a serious mistake when coming out of their sanctuaries to launch their offensive. All military experts, he points out, know that if guerrillas become involved in classical operations on an open ground, they are more vulnerable. Another inconvenient for them, is that part of the future fighting is likely to take place in little populated areas, which may make it easier to identify the jihadists. In these conditions, it will not be easy for them to preserve their Sahelistan from the attacks of the French and AFISMA.
At the same time, the number of French troops which should rise up to 2,500, combined with that of the four battalions of the Malian army which will be trained by EU instructors and of the 5,000 troops of AFISMA is relatively small to control an area which is larger than the Turkish territory. In this context, its is obvious that the support of Algeria would be precious to eradicate the rebels. There are other reasons why the French Operation could last a while. Indeed, the deployment of the 5,000 troops of AFISMA (including 2,000 Chadians and 1,200 Nigerians) may take time. A few Nigerian and Togolese soldiers had arrived on the 17 January to Bamako. But no budget yet, has been approved to finance their equipment, their ammunition and their salaries. According to a diplomat who spoke to Reuters, these soldiers only boast from ten days of reserve but the future is uncertain.
The issue was raised at the ECOWAS summit of the last 19 January, which ended up with a call to donors for the funding of AFISMA. A special conference is scheduled to take place to gather the necessary funds in Addis Ababa on the next 29 January. So far, only the European Union has pledged 50 million Euros, which will come from the Africa Peace Facility to finance the deployment of these troops. But at least, 150 million euros are needed. Beyond that, the challenge will be to transform the Malian army which has shown indiscipline and is responsible for the 22 March 2012 which has isolated the country internationally, into a professional army. By next March, some 500 European instructors, under the command of Gen François Lecointre, will start a 15 months combat training program four battalions of the Malian army (or 2,500 men). But as said Fabius, the mission is to “rebuild” the army to help it in front of a dangerous enemy. It is likely that this European program may have to be renewed.