Friday, 18 January 2013

More Trouble in Timbuktu

Back in late July I posted my fourth post (doesn't time fly). It was called "Trouble in Timbuktu" (click the name to read it) and it was in reference to the growing troubles in Mali. At the time I made the point that intervention was likely to be led by France, with others in tow, and now here we are.

Not a startling prediction by any means. The fact is that once the rebel elements had pushed down south enough to threaten cities like Mopti, and made it clear that they intended to continue the push further south to Bamako, an intervention was basically inevitable. With significant French business interests in the region, plus a historical connection to Mali and it's neighbours (stemming from the colonial era), it was inevitable France would lead the push. The only real question was when they would intervene and what form this intervention would take. That picture is starting to clear up now.

With fear rampant in the press that the UK could get dragged into "another Afghanistan", the military intervention in Mali will be the subject of this article.
To start understanding this intervention we first have to understand the opposition. The "Rebels" provide an easy comparison to Afghanistan, because like the "Taliban" in Afghanistan, the Rebels in Mali are not simply one group. They are a mixture of elements who share some goals and objectives, who disagree on other things, and in some cases have even fought battles against one another.

Originally the conflict in Mali started with the politically motivated Mouvement National pour la Libération de l'Azawad (MNLA) (The National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, Azawad being the Northern part of Mali).

The MNLA used a confluence of problems and opportunities in Mali to make its move; preying on long held dissatisfaction with the political status of the Azawad region, a famine which has hit the poorer north much harder than the more affluent south, an influx of armed groups and tribesmen from Libya after the ousting of Colonel Gaddafi, and also an influx of groups from Algeria who have fled security crack downs in that country (such as members of "Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb").

The original goal was to achieve and consolidate effective control over the Azawad region in order to declare its independence from Mali. At first the MNLA made good, steady progress. This was helped immensely by the poor state of the Malian forces, who suffered from serious deficiencies in the supply of proper arms, radios, ammunition, and even basics like regular rations. As a result the Malian army struggled to resist the advance of the MNLA and in many cases fell apart under the pressure (if you ever wanted an example of just how vital the work of the Royal Logistic Corps is, boom, here you go).

This prompted a coup d'etat of the Malian government by members of the Malian army in March of last year. At around the same time, the fractures in the MNLA bid for independence began to show.

The MNLA had essentially not taken into account two important factors. The first was over estimating the support for a Tuareg led regime in the Azawad region. Many of the people in that region come from a cultural and ethnic background that is aligned much closer with the south of the country than it is with the far north. Given the choice of being ruled from Bamako or being ruled by the Tuareg's, many would choose Bamako. 

The second mistake was to underestimate the military power and ideological ambitions of some of the Islamic groups that joined the fight alongside the MNLA. Various groups such as "Ansar Dine" have seized on the opportunity created by the breakdown of central state control over parts of the Azawad region to impose strict Islamic law on the people of various towns and cities. Many of the people of these towns and cities have not taken kindly to the imposition of these new rules, and in some cases protested or fought back until deadly force was used against them.

The MNLA tried to put a stop to this in many places, only to find itself outnumbered and outgunned at almost every turn. As the forces of the various Islamic groups spread, the MNLA found itself on the back foot. Attempts to regroup included trying to align with some local militias which had stood up to defend their homes in the absence of the Malian army and security forces. These efforts were largely quashed by the forces brought to bear by the Islamists.

Thus we find ourselves in the slightly bizarre situation where the MNLA - who started the whole thing in the first place - are now working to reconcile their differences with the current Malian government, which includes largely abandoning hopes of an independent Azawad region, and most likely providing a lot of the intelligence about the "Rebels" upon which French forces are currently acting.

Meanwhile the United Nations is in the process of gathering more information about the conflict and looking to both the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to come up with a long term, African led plan to quell the violence and restore peace and stability to the country.

It's here that we get to the real meat of the French intervention.

What's developing is a classic military scenario that students of the North African theatre in World War Two should recognise immediately. As the Malian army is pushed further south, so its supply lines shorten, and the size of the territory it must hold with a given number of men decreases. On the other side, the rebel supply lines are lengthening and it must disperse its forces to secure and hold a steadily increasing area of ground.

In short, the Malian army's force density is steadily increasing, while the Islamists force density is decreasing.

Now the Malian armed forces are not up to job of stopping the enemy by themselves. They've proved this much already. However the French intervention will - in all likely hood - "stabilise the line" so to speak.  That is their primary job right now. Hold the line, stop the advance of the Islamist forces, and prepare the ground for a follow on force that will be primarily African in make up.

To use a football analogy, France is like an interim manager, bridging the gap between one administration and another. They will support and reinforce the Malian army, blunt the oncoming advance of the Islamists, strike back at them where feasible (such as air strikes against targets deep in the territory held by the Islamist forces) and then help pave the way for an African Union and/or ECOWAS force to come in and assist the Malian army in gradually pushing the rebels back and re-asserting the control of the Malian government over the Azawad region.

We've already seen this work begin, with limited air strikes against targets around Kidal in the far north east, Gao (a regional capital of sorts along the Niger river) and Konna (which effectively represents the front line of the fighting), combining air strikes by Rafale and Mirage aircraft, along with the use of attack helicopters to provide close air support for ground forces.

What's been quite interesting to me is the way that most media outlets have been talking about the French intervention. Listening to some of the coverage, you'd be forgiven for thinking that France has mobilised most of its army to be flung into battle. In reality, Operation Serval has so far seen the deployment of about 10 combat aircraft, over half of which were already in the region (supporting operations in Chad), and a little over a battalions worth of men drawn from various French army and Marine forces, including some who have been redeployed from the Ivory Coast, along with some armoured vehicles.

It's in this early stage of deployment that France has turned to her allies for support, and a number of them have answered the call, including Great Britain. For two interesting posts about this, see one over at Think Defence, and another by Sir Humphrey over at the "Thin Pinstriped Line" blog. In short, lacking much heavy lift of its own, France has had to come cap in hand to GB for the use of two of its C-17's, under lining the importance of the MoD's investment in long range, heavy lift aircraft, and validating French investment in the new A400M.

But the pervading question that still remains is; what will the future of Mali hold? Will it turn into the new Afghanistan? The only really acceptable answer right now is; we don't know.

The Azawad region is - geographically speaking - huge. However the majority of that represents some of the most truly inhospitable terrain on Earth. In terms of its population, the bulk of those living in the Azawad region live in towns and cities close to the banks of the river Niger and its various tributaries. 

The future of Mali is very much going to be one of an African led solution. Even if France wanted to become heavily involved, which I strongly doubt it does, it simply doesn't have the manpower to pull off such a large, long term intervention. It could turn to allies like the UK, the US, and various EU member states, but it's unlikely to find any takers for a large scale enduring operation.

The AU and ECOWAS must pick up the slack then, possibly with some assistance from the UN, along with domestic Malian forces. The enduring military contribution by France, and perhaps Great Britain and other allies, is unlikely to evolve much beyond a supporting role, helping with the logistics of any campaign (which Britain is already doing, not just aiding the French), providing air support in the form of strike aircraft and helicopters, providing Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnisance (ISTAR) support, training of ground forces (especially drawing on experience gained in places like Iraq and Afghanistan), along with the possibility of some very limited assistance in higher risk and/or complex ground operations.

The Malian situation does have some factors in its favour though. Unlike the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Islamist forces never held a serious grip on power, not even in their own area of operations let alone the whole country. The general populace in the region is not especially sympathetic to the Islamist cause and has demonstrated that they will actively resist and work against them. In addition, it would appear that once AU/ECOWAS forces move in, the area will be saturated with security forces quicker and to a greater extent than was the case with places in Afghanistan like the Helmand province.

Still, these things take time. GB forces were not seriously required to begin large scale active operations in Helmand until about 5 years after the initial invasion of Afghanistan had finished. So all things considered, we'll have to wait and see. 

Perhaps the biggest risk is not in Mali istelf, but that operations in Mali will simply push the most dangerous Islamist elements elsewhere such as back north into Algeria or Libya, or east into Niger and/or Burkina Faso, possibly just for a transition period before they move on further east into Chad or, more likely, join up with groups like Boko Haram in northern Nigeria. 

The point about Algeria in particular is one that I just want to pick up on briefly for a bit of closer attention. 

As I'm sure you've seen and heard on the news, around 20 Islamic militants attacked and seized a bus carrying workers to a gas plant in the East of Algeria, near the town of In Amenas. The reason for the attack is reputedly in response to Algerias decision to grant France access to its airspace in support of operations in Mali.

The precise nature and affiliation of the group responsible is unclear at this stage, but I'm not entirely convinced that the attack was purely motivated by the reasons stated. The attack occured very close to the border with Libya and the best guesses at the minute are that the men responsible have little to no direct connection with the groups operating in Mali.

Attacking a bus may seem easy prey for a group of armed men, and doubtless was, but it also suggests some degree of pre-planning and thus pre-meditation, along with the difficulty of gathering together and arming that many men at such short notice. It's entirely possible that it was a hybrid of the two; a pre-planned operation that was brought forward and improvised in response to a perfect political opportunity.

What's more interesting is the implications of both the attack itself and the way it was handled by Algeria. 

Ever since the decision to intervene was made, France has understandably stepped up its levels of domestic security, fearful of a reprisal attack by Islamic terrorists looking to capitilise on the moment or simply to exact pure revenge against France for getting involved. Great Britain, and indeed any country offering support to France, will likely take similar precautions.

How they handle any such attack, including a possible hostage crisis, may differ greatly from how the Algerians have handled the In Amenas situation. As of the time of writing, the Algerians have succeeded in freeing almost 200 hostages from the plant while killing perhaps 12-15 hostage takers, leaving as many as 5 terrorists potentially still to be accounted for. This has come at the cost of perhaps as many as 40 hostages killed during the assault.

By the standard of modern hostage rescue operations, that is an appalling result (almost 20% casualties). I've heard it suggested by some that the purpose for going ahead so early was to assert Algerian authority and send a message to other potential terrorist groups that there would be no hope of negotiations, regardless of how many innocent casualties the operation caused or how annoyed foreign leaders were with the result, but that doesn't make a lot of sense.

The Algerians have plenty of experience fighting against terrorist groups and must have known that there are ways of ending such a siege by force, without giving in to any terrorist demands in the process. Had they waited for assistance that doubtless would have been offered by a number of nations then the result might have been a lot less grim.

This does however present one of those rare diplomatic opportunities where Great Britain has the chance to win much favour among many countries, the kind of opportunity that unfortunately often stems from tragedy. Two tragic events in particular did a lot for UK diplomacy.

The first was the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy on November 22nd, 1963. During the "Cold War" the US and the USSR were fighting a global battle for influence. One low cost American weapon in this war was the provision for training bodyguards to protect various heads of state (or "dictators", as history often remembers them). As you can probably guess, the assassination of President Kennedy did much to blunt the effectiveness of that particular weapon.

And ever an organisation quick to exploit opportunities, the Foreign office promptly arranged for visits by Special Air Service (SAS) teams for those leaders looking to make a change to their personal security arrangements. Using the close protection skills and close quarter pistol shooting techniques developed in Aden, the SAS were able to deploy small teams around the world to train potential bodyguards, and in doing so bought a significant amount of influence for Great Britain.

The other tragic event was the massacre of Israeli olympic athletes in Munich on September the 5th-6th, 1972. The spectacular (and very public) failure of German security forces during their botched rescue attempt prompted Britain to turn to the SAS once again, this time to form a full time counter-terrorist unit, which became known as the Counter-Revolutionary Warfare (CRW) wing. This unit in turn (especially after the successful ending of the Iranian Embassy Siege) generated much interest in British expertise, which then generated opportunities to form close diplomatic ties with a number of nations.

And so it is likely that after the failure of the Algerian security forces to bring the In Amenas siege to a satisfactory conclusion, that once again British expertise in the arena of counter terrorism will generate diplomatic opportunities with various nations who are seeking to strengthen their capabilities and avoid a potentially very embarassing and politically damaging incident like the one at In Amenas.

Back to the situation in Mali, personally I think that it's unlikely that we, or indeed the French for that matter, will be drawn into a prolonged engagement the like of which we saw in Iraq (post invasion) or in Afghanistan. I think a lot of the concerns that pervade the media right now about this subject are unwarranted, though obviously cannot be conclusively ruled out.

In the long term I think the situation in Mali, like Libya, has many factors in its favour that should help to steer it away from the kind of descent into chaos that overcame many parts of Iraq and Afghanistan, and should make the prospect of a lasting peace following initial military success more likely.

It's early days, but this intervention - when paired with the one in Libya and the open secret of western support for the rebels in Syria - could mark a strategic shift of sorts for Western powers, at least while the US remains distracted by China and Europe struggles with its budgets; one that seeks to achieve military victory with the minimum amount of effort required, using local forces to shoulder the main burden of fighting on the ground, while adopting more of a supporting, organising and training role.

Let us just hope we don't have cause to test that theory any further.


  1. Excellent summary Chris. I was wondering what had happened to the MNLA and where they stood.

  2. Chris - really really good post there and well worth reading.

    I'll crosslink over at my post as a brilliant summary of the situation.

  3. @ Gareth,
    In the doghouse! An independent Azawad is basically off the menu now, though there exists the possibility of creating a region which has more say in its local governance. Depends how forgiving the future Malian government (presuming there are elections again at some point) decides to be.

    @ Sir H,
    Many thanks Sir H. Keep up your own good work! Just about to dive into your Major Projects report post.

  4. Chris, a good point this one "Perhaps the biggest risk is not in Mali istelf, but that operations in Mali will simply push the most dangerous Islamist elements elsewhere such as back north into Algeria or Libya, or east into Niger and/or Burkina Faso, possibly just for a transition period before they move on further east into Chad or, more likely, join up with groups like Boko Haram in northern Nigeria. "
    - one only needs to look at the map and a lot of that area was covered by the Gaddafi-funded legions and decades of strife they whipped up (probably a good number of those same guys around now, just working for themselves rather than an easily defined paymaster)

    Cheers, ACC

  5. @ ACC,

    Thanks for stopping by. A lot of the Tuaregs who initially kicked this whole thing off had been doing various mercenary tasks for Gaddafi (some just pulling security in places, right up to the gamut of oppression) so once Gaddafi fell they drifted back south.

    When (not if) this intervention overcomes the main strongholds they'll probably be on the move again.

  6. Chris, an awesome post mate

    Its interesting though that many of these mentoring and training roles that were traditionally the preserve of SF are now routinely handled by conventional forces, especially the RMP and big chunks of what will become the adaptable force.

    The trick now will be to see how these capabilities can be effectively rolled together with DFiD and the FCO.

  7. Yes and no on the training.

    One thing that special forces of all kinds have excelled in over the last 60 odd years, which hasn't been picked up so much by regular troops yet, is the training of troops in very remote locations, well away from secure bases, in teams of no more than say 8.

    That's how, for instance, the battle of Mirbat kicked off in Oman, because you had a small SAS team deployed miles and miles away from Muscat, leading a small bunch of Firqats and Omani police which then came under attack.

    I'm glad that we're turning more and more to the training and mentor role though. Less force required, probably less expensive, and most importantly, less casualties. Switching from being the primary combatants to more of an enabling role can only be a good thing.

  8. A side note on this: the FR unit were on Ex JW11-2 operating from HMS Bulwark, with a similar scenario only insert MALI, delete SCOTLAND; so it's not only C17/Sentnel we can offer but good expeditionary training.

  9. Hey DefPhoto, thanks for stopping by,

    Indeed on the expeditionary work. There is a mountain of skills and capabilities we can offer people, depending on their own levels of expertise. The list would be a post in istelf!