Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Mali: Vive La France

by Elliott Abrams
January 14, 2013


The French intervention in Mali deserves American applause and support, and thus far is getting both.

While regarded for many years as one of Africa’s model democracies, Mali had a weak central government and never seriously addressed the north-south regional conflict within the country. That conflict exploded last year, and the timing reflected the return home of Malians who had served in Qadhafi’s forces. They brought arms back with them and quickly overwhelmed Malian Defense Force (MDF) troops and captured most of the north. This humiliation for the MDF in turn contributed to a military coup that has left Mali with an even weaker government–and left it ineligible for American aid.

International attention turned to Mali because among the forces in the north–who include Tuaregs who have long sought more regional autonomy and better treatment by the central government, Islamist groups, criminal gangs who live from the ransoms paid by people they kidnap, and those returning from Libya (and these groups overlap)–is AQIM, Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. If northern Mali turns permanently into ungoverned territory that can be used as an AQIM and AQ base, it will become an African version of Afghanistan before the U.S. military action there.

Prior to last week the international planning to help Mali was completely inadequate. A plan approved by the UN Security Council called for 5,500 MDF troops to be backed by several thousand troops from neighboring African states that, like Mali, are members of ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States. But the MDF no longer has 5,500 soldiers to field; the ECOWAS troops will be slow in coming and they are untrained and unequipped for desert warfare; and the months needed to get such a force ready would give AQIM useful time to get stronger and take more territory.

Indeed they began to move south and seeing the dangers France acted. In previous statements going back to last year President Hollande had said France would not do this, so his reversal reflects a new conclusion that the situation is dire and must be prevented from worsening. French success in stopping AQIM advances–or the advances of groups like the Islamist-led Ansar Dine–are very much in American interests and we should be giving France any military and intelligence help it needs. It appears that President Obama has made that decision, and one can only hope that we stick with it–especially if the going gets rough.

A negotiated political solution between the central government and northern groups is what Mali needs, but that will be impossible until the government is strengthened and AQIM is dealt a severe military setback. So France’s intervention is critical and must be helped to succeed. President Hollande has made a difficult and indeed dangerous decision: AQ has already made threats about terrorist attacks inside France. France deserves our full support.


Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Matt

    The French plan was not crap and if Clinton had been able to make the trip, I think some arrangement would have been done. And al-Qaida would hot have had the strategic confidence to push further south.

    What France has done now and the size of the deployment is a new module this is now phase one and phase one has become phase two. Phase one now is to consolidate control of the south from al-Qaida.

    Phase two is to push north with the Malian and ECOWAS forces and retake the population centers clear and hold from the insurgents and push them into the surrounding desert.

    Now some French troops would have been needed for that bu not the size of the current deployment. Once those areas are cleared and held the third phase which is to conduct hit and run operations with a small foot print in the Sahara.

    Similar to what we did in Somalia Mauritania, Algeria and Niger have to control the physical security for their borders to prevent al-Qaida slipping out of the encirclement via a pocket.

    Then the Malian military need to be trained and a force structure to be built to take over from ECOWAS to hold the population centers and then from the long range desert patrols, hit and run.

    The first phase will take a few weeks, the second phase a few months and the third phase a few years. The first and second phase requires urgency the third phase requires patience.

    So when the French can downsize the force structure from phase one is a few weeks, (depending of the level of support used in phase two, that would be to clear not hold). When ECOWAS can in phase two depends on the speed that the Malians can take over and the ability of that force structure to hold the cleared population centers.

    Phase three which requires a small foot print that could take a year. Before the Malians can take over long range desert patrols. That period of time provides containment of the insurgents and allows the Malians a buffer, which they can maintain the momentum keep the insurgents on the back foot so they cannot develop the level of intensity to threaten the north or the state.

    If you keep them under pressure in the desert, they cannot retake population centers and consolidate control over the north. If they can’t achieve that they cannot threaten the south and take the whole country.

    It takes around 5 years as seen in Afghanistan and Iraq to contain the insurgents and build up an indigenous security force structure. But in those cases we are taking about hundreds of thousands of troops. That is not the case in Mali and the Sahara which a small foot print and long range desert patrols and hit and run tactics are required.

    At most two years for the whole operation from phase one to handing over phase three operations to the Malians.What are the objectives of each module and phase, who do we hand over too, what is the end game.

    After that period we will still have to provide some logistical and surveillance to the Malians and continued training. We have to get them some air power fixed wing rotary for air support to the long range desert patrols.

    In phase three you would like to see some support for the French, JSOC, UK SAS, Qatar, UAE, EU SF.

    For the French to maintain support at home the mission has to be small enough foot print that the French Foreign Legion is mainly involved, while not threaten other French interest in the region and beyond.

    So while the French Military is now a professional army which allows far larger deployments, than when the Legion was the mainstay of France. And France could have deployed similar forces to Afghanistan as the UK. And while the French still were ready and prepared to deploy to North Africa once al-Qaida moved from Afghanistan and the US and NATO was still bogged down in the Stan. They still deployed around 4000 troops to the Stan. So to ask for a few hundred SF for what is a global problem, not just a French, African, European one for phase three. That is not offensive.

  • Posted by Matt

    Negotiations. They want the north and be left alone. They give a kick to the shins, so they get a kicking back. Obama’s political solution. They test the waters they see the acid, but they get what they want and no defeat for me. If ACOWAS does not send the meat no party. I will downdraw and consolidate with those that do, hold the south. Anwar knows that the French could, go north. If the hostages are released.

  • Posted by AfricaVision

    Mr. Abrams correctly stresses what should be obvious to informed observers the of the situation in Mali, and indeed the entire Sahel region: “French success in stopping AQIM advance–or the advances of groups like the Islamic-led Ansar Dine—are very much in American interests and we should be giving France any military and intelligence help it needs.”

    I would add that given the European proximity to the Sahel region, we should also be supporting France’s diplomatic efforts to mobilize more timely and significant European assistance for their current intervention in Mali.

    Second, it should be strongly stressed to Mali’s neighbors, in particular Mauritania, that allowing the terrorists to establish safe havens and enjoy freedom of movement along the border with Mali would be an act inimical to U.S. strategic interests.

    Finally, the reported revised Algerian position, which now appears to support France’s actions is to be welcomed. As is well known, AQIM has its origin in the GIA which grew out of the Algerian Civil War of the 1990s. As the recent tragic event in In Amenas has graphically demonstrated, the terrorists clearly view the current Algerian government as an enemy. And thus sooner or later the Sahel conflict will come back home to Algeria. Algers cannot ignore that Mokhtar Belmokhtar has recently enjoyed freedom of movement in Timbuctu and the broader Sahel.

  • Posted by adoum idriss

    don’t be selfish and arrogant we believe that France deployed his troops to Mali to fighting the terrorist but don’t forget beside the France soldiers there are also Chadian troops,my question is that why you didnt mention CHAD ?

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