Crisis in Mali

In a dramatic update to the ongoing conflict in the West African nation of Mali, French armed forces have begun military operations against Islamic extremists who control the northern region of the country. Air strikes by French Mirage and Rafael fighter jets as well as French ground troops sent to bolster the unsteady defenses of the Malian army have brought a fresh wave of international spotlight to a region of the world that has seen a drastic turn for the worse in the last year. Fueled by the growth of a steady flow of weapons and fresh jihadists and facilitated by the Arab Spring, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a branch of the well-known terrorist organization that operates in North and West Africa (and previously considered one of its weaker branches), took control of enormous swathes of land in the Sahara Desert last year after hi-jacking the local independence movement by the ethnic Tuareg tribes as well as other movements in the region.

The conquest has sparked a massive flood of refugees to the South and other countries due to the harsh version of Sharia law implemented by the Islamists in their captured land. Ever since then, the extremists have been slowly gaining ground, but on January 11th of this year, they crossed a line by capturing the town of Konna in the central part of the country. While not strategically significant, the event cast light on the inability of the Malian military to deal with this terrorist threat, which now offers a disturbing safe-haven for Islamic extremists that is too close for comfort for France, which launched its bombing campaign soon after the capture of the town.

A French Mirage fighter jet wages war against Al Qaeda’s Maghreb forces in Mali.

France’s operations in Mali include the before-mentioned air campaign as well as the planned deployment of 2,500 troops including Special Forces. French President Francois Hollande stated that the goal in Mali, a former French colony, was to defeat the Islamists in a matter of weeks and ensure the security of the country for its fragile government. In addition to the French, neighboring West African nations, including Ghana, Togo, Guinea, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Benin and Nigeria, have also pledged to support Mali’s government with troops and supplies. In the last few days, French troops have focused on shoring up the defenses of the border towns still in government hands while their fellows in the skies wreak havoc on the militants’ ammunition dumps, headquarters, and troop convoys. While the technology and experience brought to the conflict by French forces is admirable, the extremists are putting up fierce resistance, holding on stubbornly to the hotly contested town of Diabaly which is located around 400 miles northeast from the capital of Bamako.

Many are understandably concerned about Western involvement in Mali after a long and grueling war in Afghanistan, which was similarly controlled by Islamic extremists before the American invasion in late 2001. This operation could go as smoothly as the NATO air campaign in Libya two years ago, a textbook case of military efficiency, or as poorly as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. When asked his opinion of France’s intervention, Sameer Rai ‘14, a junior, said “I think that they should maintain their presence but should not increase it significantly as of yet; they should also be extremely cautious tactically [so] as to avoid the feeding of propaganda, but the spread of radical al-Qaeda ideology in the region should be countered in my opinion due to the risks it could cause for Europe due to the proximity to other African nations”. While every military campaign is different, this opinion reflects much of the West’s attitude towards this campaign in particular. Considering the size of the area involved, hundreds of thousands of miles of open desert, as well as the relatively small number of men fighting, (around 3,500 Malian-allied forces against 2,000-5,000 rebels) the French and their allies will most likely be waging a campaign of guerrilla warfare. The good news is that the desserts of Northern Mali as well as the people living there are well suited to counter-insurgency (COIN) operations due to the fact that the countryside is sparsely populated and those citizens who still remain are friendly to the government and its foreign allies.

The French, hardened after 10 years of COIN operations in Afghanistan and on good terms with the governments in the region, are well equipped to deal with this threat. On the other hand, the Islamists are fanatical fighters and will not give in easily. They have no regard for international law or regulations and freely use civilians as human shields to protect themselves from French bombing. They are also heavily armed after ironically fighting on the same side as NATO to topple Dictator Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. The militants know the terrain well and can cross boarders into neighboring countries where their fellows still control large amounts of territory. This last advantage was highlighted this week with the takeover of a BP gas plant in Easter Algeria by Islamists which resulted in the taking of many hostages, though the exact number is as of now still unknown.

Those responsible for this hostage taking claim to do so in response to the French intervention in Mali. This incident as well as the failure of Algeria (another former French colony) to free the hostages safely shows the need for a wider intervention, though such an increase in operations would be dicey at best with the public. Alex Doan ‘14, another junior, said in response to questions regarding the need for a wider conflict said “International intervention in West Africa should not be limited to Mali, although military action should probably be confined to that region for the time being. For now, the best the international community can do is to help out the West African people – giving them essentials like water, food, and education before Islamic extremists do so. To wait would be to allow these people to ally with the extremists, thus laying the foundation for increased extremist activity. The US needs to take a proactive stance to ensure that West Africa does not become a militant hotbed.” The issue is clearly controversial to a weary public, though steps need to be taken. This conflict is not limited to Mali, and success in just one nation will be inevitably temporary without addressing the problems of the countries suffering from partial Islamic takeovers.

Sources


Associated Press, “Mali Towns marked by fighting, airstrikes as France battles Islamist militants” (2013).
Gregory Viscusi and and Franz Wild, Bloomberg. “French Ground Forces to Attack Mali Rebel Territory” (2013).
Rukmini Callimachi and Baba Ahmed, Associated Press. “As French troops press attack on Mali, rebels digging in” (2013).

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