France has limited direct interests in Mali itself, but the West African country is geographically centered in the heart of France's former colonial empire. Unable to trust Malian forces alone to repel al Qaeda, France could not tolerate an unfettered jihadist base of operations that could threaten its economic interests in surrounding countries. Those interests include energy resources in Algeria, uranium in Niger to fuel France's robust nuclear sector and gold mining in Mauritania. France also has agrarian commercial interests in the region, including cotton in Mali and cocoa in Ivory Coast.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb faces numerous constraints in operating in these neighboring countries, which is why it originally sought refuge in Mali when there was a power vacuum. However, a Jan. 16 attack and seizure of a natural gas processing facility in southern Algeria by an al Qaeda-linked group shows that local jihadists can reach into areas of critical interest in the region.
Mali is a critical base for al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb's recruiting, training and arming efforts. From this base, al Qaeda operatives could carry out attacks and not only destabilize the region but create instability far beyond West Africa. France therefore has a strategic interest in denying Mali as a sanctuary to al Qaeda.
Jihadists' Strategic Interests
Mali has given al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its affiliates an area in which they can marshal resources, train and plan in order to further their political ends. This opportunistic grab fits in with al Qaeda's previous pattern of behavior: using security vacuums in failed states or regions unaffected by weak central governments to operate freely, even if that freedom is temporary. The areas the jihadists seize serve a secondary goal of drawing in Western forces that can be accessed and attacked, giving the jihadist fighters an advantage over their enemies.
One of the tenets of al Qaeda's strategy has been to encourage local affiliates and branches to take advantage of failed states or unsecure regions in order to establish uncontested areas of operation in places like Sudan, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia and Libya. This gives al Qaeda secure places and time to train, plan and gather money and fighters from within the regions, as well as places to pool resources from other areas under pressure. Al Qaeda eventually uses these areas to begin exerting force for its political ends, as it did in Afghanistan. Mali's geography and weak central government and military made it an appealing territory for al Qaeda to set up a base. It also provided a vast area that, for a considerable period of time, allowed the jihadists to operate in relative security from regional military attacks.
An influx of displaced and well-armed Tuareg fighters from the conflict in Libya pushed the balance of power in northern Mali into the rebels' favor. The northern section of Mali is the size of France and Spain combined, and its terrain is distinct from the southern half and blends in with the broader Sahel region. The country's halves are also relatively distinct ethnically and religiously. This means Bamako in the south has to project force into the north and occupy it to exert control, and for a poor country with limited abilities, this was a tenuous hold. The bolstered Tuareg ranks fought an increasingly effective insurgency that triggered a military coup in the south and broke the army, which ceded the northern half of Mali initially to the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its allies capitalized on this and quickly usurped the Tuaregs, taking control of the region. This effectively gave the jihadists a state of their own, allowing them to have secure territory where they can marshal resources, train and build capabilities to continue the fight to attain their political ends.
The Jihadist Mission
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its affiliates want to disrupt the international intervention in Mali as much as possible. Their tactics include attrition, propaganda and psychological warfare while keeping avenues of retreat open.
The jihadists currently operate in a loose coalition of three main rebel groups. These are the regional al Qaeda forces, estimated to be between 1,000 and 1,500 strong; Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa forces, with an estimated strength of 500; and Ansar Dine with an estimated strength of 1,000. These forces were fully aware that an international coalition was gradually being assembled against them. Aware that time was not on their side, the jihadists launched a two-pronged offensive to disrupt the intervention preparations. A large column of battle-hardened al Qaeda forces attacked from positions in the Timbuktu region in the west toward Diabaly, while a mixed jihadist force sought to drive back the Malian army south of the Niger River and seize the town of Konna and the nearby airport in Sevare. The Sevare airport was critical for the intervention as the only forward operating base with enough logistical capacity to sustain an offensive northward.
The jihadists broke the Malian army, seized Konna and almost seized Sevare. France, realizing that the offensive was a serious threat to their planned intervention, acted decisively and quickly brought forces into the battlefield from neighboring areas such as Bamako. These forces, principally formed from the French Army Special Forces Brigade and associated air support, managed to drive back the rebels and hold on to Sevare, allowing them to maintain their eventual jumping-off point into northern Mali.
Now, the jihadists have to decide whether to maintain pressure on the French to disrupt their ongoing buildup, to retreat deep into northern Mali and attack the intervention forces when they eventually come in or to effectively cede the strategic interest in Mali entirely while retreating into the mountains with their forces largely intact. As of now, and especially given the large thrust near Diabaly, it is apparent that the jihadists have not given up the fight.
France's Military MissionFrench forces intend to degrade, disrupt and drive al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb from northern Mali and fill the resulting power vacuum with secular indigenous forces. The mission to accomplish these goals can be broken down into four broad phases.
The first phase will be to stabilize the Diabaly-Konna-Douentza line by establishing a blocking position with air support along the line and to drive back attempted jihadist incursions. This phase is under way.
The second phase will involve the buildup of forces, including French forces, Western intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and support assets and units from the Economic Community of West African States. There could also be an attempt to rebuild the Malian army to the best extent possible. The longer this phase lasts, the better the intervention force will be prepared for the next phase. However, political, financial and military pressures will likely increase on the French to transition quickly to the offensive phase as time goes on.
Phase three will involve the push into northern Mali, the seizure of key terrain and urban centers and the degradation and dispersion of jihadist forces. For the sake of minimizing French casualties and to lower the general cost it incurs, France would prefer to play a primarily supportive role in this phase while West African and Malian forces take the lead. The extent to which this would be possible depends on the duration and effectiveness of the second phase.
The final phase will be the "hold and build" part of the mission. In this phase, France will seek to gradually return control of northern Mali to indigenous forces (possibly supported by a continued African Union or Economic Community of West African States mission). The establishment of law and order and an effective governance structure would be a means to prevent al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb's return to the area.
Any stable, long-term conclusion would require that rebel forces be pushed from the three main urban centers of northern Mali and that any remaining forces in the rural landscape are dispersed and rendered ineffectual. This is what the third phase of the operation entails and is directly related to the effectiveness and duration of the second phase of the operation. The establishment of a local or regional force able to occupy and garrison the north, project force throughout the region and prevent the reconstitution of the rebel threat is the hardest part of the operation. The Malian army's inability to handle militants sparked the original coup, and this army has broken and run twice in the subsequent fighting. It is going to take time, training, significant resources and a continued commitment (whether from French or West African forces) to provide the resources needed to create a new functional army.
In short, it will take at least several weeks to go through the first three phases of the operation. For the fourth phase to be successful, a commitment of a year or more will likely be necessary. Regardless of how fast France pushes the various phases of this operation, France cannot avoid a long war without providing the long-term solution. The only wild card is the possible use of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad to control the north in exchange for the Tuareg movement's effort to keep out extremists. This would eliminate the need for a Bamako-led Malian army. However, the Tuareg movement already lost control to extremists and giving it authority in the north would weaken Bamako's sovereignty, creating another set of problems.
Constraints on French Leadership
Though France has regularly carried out military operations in its former colonial sphere of influence, the intervention in Mali does not fit the norm of French military activity in Africa. Previous interventions in countries ranging from Ivory Coast to Chad to the Central African Republic largely consisted of policing operations in former colonial capitals to repel rebel attacks. Such operations allowed French forces to step in, disperse rebel forces in a controlled area and draw down their presence without becoming bogged down in a longer fight.
In Mali, France is taking the leadership role in a mission typically dominated by the United States: the degradation and disruption of jihadist forces with the potential to threaten Western interests. The United States has had an uneven track record in this mission, and France, already consumed by the European crisis, will be further constrained by a U.S. imperative to play a limited role in this conflict.