As France continues to increase its forces in Mali, the configuration of its military operations is becoming clearer. France has deployed 2,300 troops as part of Operation Serval — 1,400 are in Mali while the rest provide support from Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso and Senegal, among other locations. The French forces have been able to stabilize the battlefield in central Mali by containing the major jihadist advances at Diabaly and in the Mopti region. Malian forces, heavily supported by the French, have also been able to finally take back control of Konna near Mopti.The ground combat forces involved in Operation Serval are organized into three task forces made up of infantry companies with light armored support. One of these task forces has already been deployed outside of Bamako to provide security at Markala, a crossing of the Niger River near Segou. This location is critical to ensure jihadist militants are unable to cut the transport connection between Bamako and Mopti, the location of the most forward-located improved runway currently under protection of French special operations forces. North of Markala, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb forces are still holding the town of Diabaly, where French airstrikes and a joint ground operation by Malian troops and French special operations forces continue to harass them.
A part of the French fighter-bomber force consisting of Mirage fighters has been relocated from its base in Chad to the military airport in Bamako. French transport helicopters and Eurocopter Tiger attack helicopters belonging to the 5th Combat Helicopter Regiment have also arrived in Bamako. These attack helicopters are expected to commence operations from forward-deployed positions as soon as they are ready.
As for the jihadists, each group is reacting differently to the operations. The Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, a splinter group of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, has reportedly abandoned the towns it had a presence in under the stress of French airstrikes. Douentza in the Mopti region has allegedly not been under the group's control since Jan. 14, but Malian ground elements — tied up in combat near Konna, closer to Mopti — have not moved there yet. The Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa had earlier abandoned Gao and Kidal, the two major northern towns where it had a presence.
Ansar Dine was engaged with the Malian military at Konna before giving the city up earlier Jan. 18. The Ansar Dine militants are retreating from there in the direction of Gao. Along with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb forces, they have also reportedly abandoned their positions in Timbuktu. The jihadist push to the west along Nampala and Diabaly is alleged to be the work of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb militants under the command of Algerian Abou Zeid. While French forces have contained them at Diabaly, there have been reports that a convoy of al Qaeda troops in pickup trucks had moved on from Diabaly toward Banamba, just north of Bamako. Malian forces have been deployed to Banamba but no jihadists have been sighted yet. If a militant element is loose behind the front lines it would fix Malian or French forces in place.
While jihadist fighters are no longer overtly present in Gao and Timbuktu, the value of these locations for defensive purposes — they are crossings on the Niger River and heavy population centers — suggests jihadist forces will attempt to interdict any force attempting to move through them. Covert elements may have stayed behind in the cities, fighters may plan to return from the north or fighters withdrawing from the south could stop there. Regardless of the exact plan, it would be unusual for the jihadists to give up these choke points without attempting to slow or halt the opposing forces there.
As the battlefield in Mali evolves, the planned African intervention force is growing and its timetable for deployment is being accelerated in response to the jihadists' aggressive military moves. With France containing the jihadists and protecting the staging area of the intervention, the African forces are preparing to move into northern Mali, where they will be backed by Western logistical, intelligence and air support. Originally, the force was meant to include only 3,300 African soldiers on top of 2,600 Malian troops. At present, Chad, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Niger, Senegal, Togo, Benin, Guinea and Ghana have pledged around 5,760 troops for the operation. Nigerian and Togolese troops have already arrived in Bamako, and Chadian troops are in Niger, from which they will fly to Bamako alongside the Nigerien contingent.
Chad has committed to deploying 2,000 soldiers, a considerable share of the African forces. The reason could be that the Chadian government is reacting to the Malian military's weak performance in holding off the jihadist advance prior to the French intervention. The unexpected jihadist offensive, followed by the French intervention, sped up the process of deploying the African intervention force. There might not be time for extended training of Malian forces in the schedule of current operations. Chadian forces, which have been trained by the French military over the past few years, could bridge that gap because they would require less time to prepare for integrating and operating with the other forces. Nigeria has also increased its commitment to a contingent of 1,200 troops — as well as F-7 and Alpha jet aircraft, which will add to the air assets of the intervention force — making its contribution the second largest in the African force.
The mobilization of this African force, as well as the fast deployment of French forces and their logistical support, depends heavily on the contributions of Western countries. The United Kingdom, Canada, the United States, Germany, Denmark and Belgium have all put transport aircraft at the disposal of France to fly equipment into Mali and to collect the African forces around West Africa to move them into the country. The European Union has also committed to setting up a training mission — to be led by France — that will increase the efficiency of the Malian army.