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The war in Mali is not the war in Indochina

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The French officer’s statement published in the Sunday paper may have seemed alarmist concerning the difficulty of the combats awaiting our forces. It is therefore worth putting it back in context. Of course, not underestimating an opponent is an essential condition for success in the field. But any tactical evaluation must be put into a strategic context.

First a few words on the enemy. Of course they are well armed and commanded by experienced and fanatical leaders, at least in the case of AQIM and MUJAO. It is not so much the case for Ansar Dine. Every soldier is not as fanatical or as well trained as their leaders. At least half the members of the group are there for the pay and have only recently been recruited and trained.
Their vulnerability mainly comes from the lack of air force or any sophisticated intelligence solutions, along with the increased difficulty they will have to stock up on carburant and munitions if Algeria shuts its boarders as promised.

Moreover, unlike Indochina, our forces will operate in an environment (terrain and population) which is favorable to them, in which they have acquired solid experience over the past 50 years (1969 first intervention in Chad).

The area in which operations will take place is 3 million km² (nearly 6 times the area of France). Our intelligence will have to cover this area, as rebels and djihadists ignore boarders. It extends from North to South over approximately 1500 km, between the 20th parallel south of Tamanrasset and a region of the Sahel that includes East Mauritania, northern Mali and northern Niger. From West to East the area is 2000 km wide, ranging from the Mauritanian border region of Nema - Adel Bagrou - Bassiknou to the Arlit - Agadès - Nakoro 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 and 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 (8 000 inhabitants) and Tessalit (5 000 inhabitants).

This area was conquered early in 2012 by rebels of the MNLA and is now controlled by the Ansar Dine Islamic extremists which are in part a “spin off” of the MNLA. It is probably in this area that our forces can face hostility of the local population if no political negotiation with the Malian leaders has come to a particular arrangement for this area beforehand.

To the North, the Niger River rapidly leads to a set of sandy plains with altitudes between 250 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 the Sahel and 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 Polisario5 columns and « Jaguars » from the Air Force, based in Senegal and refueled in flight in order to destroy them.

I would also like to bring to mind the experience acquired in Chad where the « Epervier Device » has been stationed since 1986. It is thanks to these pre-positioned forces that France could rapidly put an end to the jihadist columns that wanted to head towards Bamako. « Operation Epervier » was launched at the beginning of February 1986 after the Libyan armed forces crossed the 16th parallel when they came to support Goukouni Oueddei who had been overturned at the end of 1981 by Hissène Habré with France’s support. It followed «Operation Manta» that had been launched in 1983-1984 for the same reasons.

To conclude, this war must first of all be a war of airborne and land intelligence, using drones, helicopters and marine and air force aircrafts and Special Forces.
If we manage to mobilize the necessary intelligence systems, our ground forces accompanying those of Mali and ECOWAS will progress towards the North out without surprises. We will be able to intercept and destroy the attacks of the small rebel columns that will try to oppose it and watch our backs by combined air-land actions.

On this condition, our losses should be significantly lower than what we faced in Afghanistan (an average of two deaths per month) and incomparable to those suffered in Indochina (285 killed per month, only counting our metropolitan Soldiers).

General (2S) Jean-Bernard PINATEL