Mali could become the new Afghanistan, only worse
France’s military intervention into its former North African colony of Mali, dubbed Operation Serval, could become another Afghanistan if France and other European Union members are lured into a long campaign of counterinsurgency based on nation building, instead of one that remains focused on airstrikes and ground operations by Special Forces trained in unconventional warfare.
As the Dutch Foreign Minister said, “…there is not one European country that can hide if this threat would present itself to the European continent.”
Unless Western, social egalitarian countries like France are prepared to implement the kind of counterinsurgency tactics carried out by the infamous Selous Scouts in former Rhodesia, then these ferociously well-armed, highly mobile faith driven Jihadists will blend back into the harsh north African terrain only to terrorise the next weak State.
While in antithesis to how Western voters expect their nations to conduct war in morally and politically correct confined ways, the Algerian Government’s approach to the hostage situation maybe exactly what is required to stop the jihadists in Mali, once and for all.
Perhaps the only reference most of us have to Mali the ancient city of Timbuktu. It was the centre of a major Islamic empire and the crossroads of trade in gold and salt.
Following independence from France in 1960, Mali endured 23 years of military dictatorship, brutal droughts, famine, several coups and more recently civil conflict by the northern Tuareg separatists.
It is one of the poorest countries in the world with a long history of slavery that continues to exist today with an estimated 200,000 people held under bondage.
After the over-throw of Gaddafi from Libya in 2011 many of the rebel fighters along with stockpiles of weapons made their way to Mali, joining forces with Islamist militants linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb (AQIM), Ansar Dine the Tuareg insurgency and a group calling itself the Movement For Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO).
Since 2002 the United States has had Special Forces training the Mali Government army until in March 2012 a military coup led by Malian soldiers, fled to join the rebels.
Combined with its vast northern areas of poverty, corruption and no sign of government services, Islamic extremists, AQIM and insurgents who fled from Afghanistan have found a new sanctuary from which to enforce their warped version of Islam and Sharia Law.
France’s best unconventional counterinsurgency forces are the French Foreign Legion, one of the world’s elite military units with hardened Northern Africa experience.
The Legion will be the tip of the spear to eliminate the jihadists.
The problem for France is that unlike the Taliban in Afghanistan these extremists are not wedded to any particular village or community and have virtually no geographical domain.
Hunting them out of Mali will not end the threat as they can disappear back over the borders of Algeria and Libya, regroup and continue waging their insurgency attacks back into Mali.
France would do well to resist the wide use of conventional forces that may lack an understanding of the local tribal and ethnic networks, essential for prevailing in this kind of asymmetric conflict.
Conventional forces may also be confined to running missions from large Forward Operating Bases that can reduce situational awareness for soldiers rather than living and attacking from behind enemy lines.
France’s African coalition includes over 3,000 troops from Mali, Nigeria and Chad, experienced in desert warfare and familiar with the mindset of village, community and ethnic life in this harsh environment.
It would be more effective to use the Foreign Legion, in combination with African troops to maintain an intense, guerrilla raiding style strategy as well as continuing air strikes.
This was effectively how the U.S defeated the Taliban in late 2001.
The big question is whether France, the EU and its African partners have both the resources necessary to drive the extremists completely out of northern Mali and the stomach for the kind of campaign that may be required.
The axis of Islamic Jihadists that have joined forces in Mali are a classic example of how the seeds of radicalisation can drift into failed or failing states that have remained absent from the public’s mind.
While our attention has been on Afghanistan, since 2002 the U.S has invested heavily in a counterterrorism program in Northern Africa, including arming and training Malian government forces.
The Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP) with its large USAID budget for schools and youth programs, has had marginal results in limiting the progress of the Islamic Jihadists.
These outside extremists in Mali have driven thousands people from their homes in the North after destroying historical places, public executions, amputations and a ban on virtually everything local communities enjoyed.
So the typical population-centric, nation-building style of counterinsurgency we saw grow to mammoth proportions in Afghanistan, will not work.
In Mali this is like pouring water into the desert sands.
The Islamic jihadists Modus Operandi in Mali could be described as an asymmetric response by non-state Islamic actors counter our actions in Afghanistan, Yemen and the border regions of Pakistan.
By their very nature, non-state actors such as al Qaeda are borderless movements. They do not rely on a one-dimensional front line and use impressionable segments of society or fragile nations with porous borders as hosts.
Whether we like it nor not or believe there is some U.S, Western conspiracy about al Qaeda and terrorism or question the relevance of some far off land, that is all very well until it reaches your doorstep. That is what the Europeans now fear.
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