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Unexpected first line engagement of the French forces in Mali

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For six months, the situation in northern Mali seemed frozen with negotiations being held with the MNLA and Ansar Dine, supported by Algeria. But on Friday January 11th, the military situation in Mali faced an unexpected turnaround.

Indeed, on Thursday January 10th, after almost 24 hours of fighting that caused several casualties in the ranks of the Malian army, the rebels seized the area of Konna, located 60 km north of Mopti, the country’s third largest city with 120 000 inhabitants, making it 4 times larger than Gao the capital of northern Mali.

This rebel action marks a turning point in the situation in Mali.

For the first time the rebellion led an action South of Azawad, the territory claimed by the MNLA and Ansar Dine.

Through their presence in Konna, the rebels are directly threatening Mopti and its international airport. Bamako, which is merely located 600 km away and is home to more than 5000 French is indirectly threatened.

The rebels have clearly been encouraged to act by several factors:

  • The numerous statements of French politicians who didn’t stop repeating that France would only instruct and provide logistical support to the Malian army and ECOWAS forces and would not intervene directly in fighting;
  • Procrastination of ECOWAS that did not intend to be ready to support a counter-offensive action before the third quarter of 2013;
  • The prevailing political mayhem in Bamako where political forces are unable to achieve national unity;
  • The failure of negotiations between Ansar Dine and transitional authorities in Bamako.

Hence, the rebels thought they had a window of opportunity to push South, either to get into a position of strength in order to resume negotiations or to seize power in Bamako as did the people of northern Chad led by Hissen Habré, or Goukouni Oueddei or Idriss Deby.

France’s airborne intervention, certainly guided from the ground by detachments of Special Forces is facilitated by the terrain: to move forward with their Toyotas towards Mopti, the rebels can only use a narrow corridor between the branches of the Niger River and the Diogon plateau. This suggests that as soon as the strikes started, the rebels stopped moving south and hid in the area of Konna where it now seems that the Malian army is back on its feet, all be it without regaining full control.

Meanwhile France sent a group of paratroopers from the 11th Brigade to secure Mopti international airport, located 8 km west of the city against the town of Sévaré located on the N6 road, a North-South axis leading to Bamako. Control of the airport is strategic for Mali because it allows to park planes and helicopters needed for intelligence support as well as fire support for ground troops.

The French President will now have to choose between two military options:

  • A defensive interdiction mission in which our planes will only take part if the rebels cross a line marked on the ground, e.g. Konna; for a long time in Chad this line was the Moussoro parallel;
  • An in depth destruction mission to weaken the rebels’ potential, as was the case in Libya and during the intervention in Mauritania against the columns of the Polisario in 1977 / any armored vehicle traveling in a precisely defined hunting area is then likely to be destroyed.

On the diplomatic front, France now has no room for mistakes. In return for direct support to Malian forces, the political disorder in Bamako must come to an end. Indeed, without political unity, the Malian military will spend time doing politics instead of training to regain control of the North of their country and France will be dragged into an endless and expensive intervention even if it does not present significant risks to our soldiers.

General (2S) Jean-Bernard PINATEL