|French military routes to West Africa
The map of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)
On January 11 President Hollande did what many French voters wanted and expected him to do. At the same time he deprived his internal opposition of another opportunity to call him weak and indecisive. 6,000 French nationals living in Bamako and 80,000 Malians living in France will definitely be among the staunch supporters of his decision, as well as those having economic interests in uranium mines in neighboring Niger. It’s doubtful, however, that President Hollande will maintain such mass support for a long time. It shouldn’t take too long for French citizens to realize that Operation Serval is not going to be similar to 2011 airstrike against Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbabgo, and that it is not another Lybia operation either, believed to be so successful at the time. There are all signs to anticipate that Operation Serval will be much longer and costlier. That said, had France and International community protracted this operation even longer, we could have easily gotten another Rwanda. Not in terms of the genocide maybe, but in terms of letting the processes escalate to the worst possible scenario.
Here are some of the operational and tactical challenges French forces face in Mali.
Fighting adversary’s strengths. One of the main rules of an effective military operation is to confront adversary’s weakness, not its strength. Fighting rebels from the air would have been much easier and cheaper in terms of human loses. Even though Mali rebels are quite well armed, SA-7 and SA-2 surface-to-air missiles inherited from Malian army and Moammar Gadhafi’s arsenal, could bring down planes of Malian government or the African assistance force, but they would be less effective against French or NATO air forces. But France has already realized that heavy air bombardments are not sufficient and started deployment of ground forces. It is moving towards deeper engagement pretty quickly. Starting from some 30 to 40 Special Forces troops serving as spotters for bombing operations, French presence quickly increased to 800 and is planned to achieve some 2,500 in coming days. But ground combat is where militants’ strengths are. All three groups – al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Movement for the Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and Ansar Dine are well-equipped, well-trained, and know the austere desert terrain of northern Mali very well. These groups have been preparing for war for months. They have built impressive network of underground bunkers and trenches fortified with the cement walls on the sides of the few roads to northern Mali. Even though some reports claim that militants have alienated locals with the enforcement of radical Islamic rules, other sources report that militants have protection of local chiefs and that their ties are further strengthened by intermarriages. Yet other sources mention that Islamists have evicted civilians from their houses and implanted their bases in locals’ mud houses, making it much more difficult for the French to detect and fight them. Such tactics will certainly increase civilian casualties in the coming battles.
Fighting extremely mobile adversary. The type of war these groups have been waging for the last decade involved high level of mobility, which has a crucial importance at the operational level. Since 2003 they have kidnapped and held 32 European tourists in the hideouts in desert and, according to Stratfor, raised about $89 million in ransom payments. They are equipped with some armored personnel carriers seized from the Malian military and vehicles equipped with heavy machine guns. Throughout these years militants have perfected small-unit tactics, learned every dune in the desert and thus, can re-group and reposition very quickly. As Col. Michel Goya from French Military Academy’s Strategic Research Institute put it “You can’t launch a war of extermination against a very tenacious and mobile adversary… we are in a classic counter-insurrectionary situation. They are well armed, but the weapons are not sophisticated; A couple of thousand men, very mobile.”
Logistics – international support is lagging behind. So far the operation is led by the French, but President Hollande expects Africans to take the lead sometime soon. France is already receiving logistical support from UK, Canada, Denmark, and Belgium, and Pentagon has promised airlift and intelligence assistance. Without international support it would be very difficult for France to project its power on another continent and transport needed supplies into the theater. The table of forces and logistical support available as of January 17 can be found here. Economic Cooperation of West African States (ECOWAS) pledged to send the troops, but deployment is taking much more time than expected. ECOWAS forces are ill-equipped, lack training, and require UN’s financial support.
On the other hand, rebel groups are almost self-sustainable financing themselves through the ransom raised from hostages. As one of their ex-hostage, Robert Fowler has described in his memoires A Season in Hell, AQIM has not only stockpiled weapons, generators, gasoline and other resources in its vast bunkers, but also developed quite well-organized system of supply.
France’s current tactics are far from the stated political and strategic goals. France’s main political aims in Mali are to stop terrorist aggression, make Bamako safe, and restore Mali’s territorial integrity. But achieving these goals will need much more than just a successful military operation. It will require building military capabilities of Mali’s security and defense institutions as well as broader state building efforts and it is not going to happen in a short term. If President Hollande is serious about these goals, he should start preparing his government and French public for the long-term and expensive operation.