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The intervention in the Sahel: military and diplomatic strategy


At a time of military intervention in the Sahel by ECOWAS [1] forces, helping Mali forces trained and supported by the French Special Forces and probably by American drones, and who will benefit from any necessary air fire and logistic support, a geopolitical and strategic analysis is required.

This analysis will be carried out in two articles. The first will deal with the characteristics of the area that this action will take place in, and that the military maneuver results from. The second will study the movements of the terrorists controlling Northern Mali and their proximity, or supposed proximity with the States neighboring the arena in which the operations take place, in particular Morocco and Algeria. This analysis will enable us to trace the possible options for the diplomatic maneuver that will go with the military maneuver.

Characteristics of the area of operations

The area in which operations will take place is 300 000km² (55% of the French territory). It extends from North to South over approximately 1500km, between the 20th parallel south of Tamanrasset and a Sahel region that includes East Mauritania, northern Mali and northern Niger. From East to West the area is 2000km wide, ranging from the Mauritanian border region of Nema - d’Adel Bagrou [2] - Bassiknou to the d’Arlit [3] - Agadès - Nakoro [4] region in Niger that includes the Niger Bend where the cities of Gao and Tombouctou are located.

This operations area is three quarters desert and relatively flat. The main relief of the area is located in the Kidal district in eastern Mali (10 000 inhabitants) and rises to 890 m. This is where the Tuaregs of the Ifoghas tribe originate from. This crystalline mountain is an extension of central Sahara is bordered on the West by the Tilemsi valley, a North-South axis that gives access to the Algerian border and runs through the towns of Aguelhok (8000 inhabitants) and Tessalit (5000 inhabitants). This area was conquered early in 2012 by rebels of the MNLA and is now controlled by the Ansar Dine islamists which are in part a “spin off” of the MNLA.

To the North, the Niger River rapidly leads to a set of sandy plains with altitudes between 260 and 320m. It is crossed by a second north-south track, which is the traditional route for salt convoys. It leads to the Algerian border from Timbuktu via the Arouane water point (260 km North of Timbuktu) and via the former prison in Taoudenni (750 km north of Timbuktu) where the Tuareg have always exploited the rock salt. It then passes through Téghasa on the northwestern edge of Mali to reach Tindouf in Algeria.

A part from the Niger River, there is only one other east-western track in northern Mali linking Tamanrasset (Algeria) to Tessalit - Taoudenni via the border post of Tinzaouaten.

The specifics of war in the Sahelian zone

Controlling towns and villages, which only exist because there are water points, is the major issue of the war in semi-desert and desert areas.

In desert areas, it is very difficult when moving to avoid aerial reconnaissance which is facilitated by the lack of vegetation. This is clearly demonstrated by the French intervention in 1977-1978 against the Polisario. The Sahrawi movement, sponsored by Algiers, intended to suffocate Mauritania by attacking the mineral railway line linking Zouerate to Nouadhibou to get rid of its only exportable resource: Zouerate iron.

The set-up, which allowed safe delivery of iron, included “Breguets Atlantics” from the Navy in order to identify the Polisario [5] columns, and “Jaguars” from the Air Force, based in Senegal and refueled in flight in order to destroy them. It is also the pressure exerted against the Polisario, created by Algeria to contest the annexation of a part of Western Sahara by Morocco, which allowed the hostages to be freed from Zouerate. Boumediene agreed to hand them over to the French authorities, hoping that this gesture would avoid the complete destruction of the Polisario’s potential. It is this experience that maintains the hope that terrorist groups will not execute their hostages in the case of a military intervention as they are their best card in a final negotiation.

Possible military strategy

The military campaign against terrorist organizations is likely to include a three phase plan that will take place from November 2012 to April 2013, during the dry season and the more temperate one:

  • Strengthening and training of 3000 men of the expeditionary force of ECOWAS by French special forces, meanwhile starting up information actions and maybe even airstrikes on routes connecting cities and towns occupied by terrorist forces (October-December 2012);
  • Reclaiming the cities of the Niger Bend including Gao and Timbuktu (January-February 2013);


  • Regain Control of the “Adrar des Ifoghas” including the regions of Kigal, Aguelhok (8000 inhabitants) and Tessalit (March-April 2013).

Meanwhile, political negotiations will mature with the riparian countries and with the Malian government and will include Ansar Diné and Tuaregs of the NLA. The analysis of the possible diplomatic maneuver based on the course of the leaders of these terrorist movements and the origins of their fighters will be presented in the next article.

General (2S) Jean-Bernard PINATEL

[1] Economic Community Of West African States.

[2] where a policeman was kidnapped at the end of December 2011.

[3] Where five French Areva and Satom employees and a Togolese were kidnapped Thursday September 16th by the AQIM.

[4] 300km South of Agadès where 6 African humanitarian workers working for a Nigerian NGO were kidnapped during the night of the 14th to the 15th October.

[5] The radar of the Atlantics is optimized to pick out submarine periscopes and worked wonders in the Mauritanian sand dunes.