By the time French forces touched down in Mali on January 11, a bulwark of naysayers had already formed. The French military, while tactically adept and no stranger to West Africa, would nonetheless have trouble suppressing well-armed militants occupying northern Mali, would risk alienating the population, and would be mired in the conflict for months, maybe years. From an ideological point of view, France’s “Operation Serval” was bellicose, unjust, or neo-colonialism in disguise. The more moderate skeptics argued that the “ghosts” of a 12-year occupation of Afghanistan, fresh in many minds, would haunt the French intervention (see here, here, and here). Not everyone was so cynical (see here and here), but few expected the French military to quickly reverse rebel gains, much less “liberate” northern Mali.
Oof, lesson learned: don’t bet against France. Turns out the same slice of territory (the size of France and Belgium combined) that Tuareg separatists and Islamist fighters held for 8 months fell at the hands of foreign intervention within 3 ½ weeks. Rather than malevolent occupiers, France was seen across the country as “saviors.” The liberators were treated to welcoming chants of “Vive la France!” in Timbuktu and beyond. Paris, the perennial “protector” of Francophone Africa, had saved the day.
A month after the French intervention began, President Francois Hollande announced:
“L’essentiel du territoire malien a été libéré, aucune ville n’est occupée par un groupe terroriste, aucun des réseaux ou groupes qui jusque-là mettaient en péril la vie des Maliens n’est capable de mener une véritable offensive.” (AFP, 2/12/13)
“Most Malian territory has been liberated, no city is occupied by a terrorist group, no networks or groups that previously threatened the lives of Malians are able to lead a genuine offensive.” *translation is my own
Of course, it debatable whether “no city” is currently occupied (militants are able to blend in with the local population, and some villages are indeed still swarming with jihadists), and Paris will be the first to admit that the conflict is still not over (as vindicated by recent surprise attacks in and around Gao). But considering the barrage of worst-case scenarios from skeptics, the frequent caution now seems, in retrospect, a bit excessive.
Not every analyst got it wrong. Most observers familiar with Mali’s geography and the Islamist rebels’ capabilities rightly pointed out that securing territory would get tougher as the French progressed north and east into Ansar Dine’s hilly heartland. This was true: retaking Gao and Timbuktu (which French and Malian forces reclaimed on Jan. 26 and Jan. 28, respectively) was the easy part. Each city was surrounded by flat plains and local populations were relatively hostile toward the occupying rebels, so advantage to the counterinsurgent. Once initial sweeps were completed, pure strength in numbers would be enough to consolidate gains. (As the Economist astutely points out, “the French strategy has been to deploy special forces to capture key towns, then hand them over to Malian or regional African troops to garrison.” While hastily-assembled and not yet truly tested, forces from neighboring countries (Chad, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Niger) are likely to be much more effective at holding recaptured towns than the overstretched and underprepared Malian military circa last April.)
This is all well and good for the flatlands of central Mali and areas around Gao, skeptics surmised, but what will happen when the French venture into the hostile mountains of northeastern Mali? (see: Adrar des Ifoghas) Based on reports, it appeared to many that Islamist rebels were prepared in the event of foreign intervention: they would retreat to the hills, carve out shelter in the region’s many remote caves, and weather the storm…à la al-Qai’da in Afghanistan/Pakistan after 2001.
Many predicted that France, with its bulky equipment and little appetite for a drawn-out conflict, would pick the low-hanging fruit (Gao and Timbuktu) but largely leave the Islamists in the Adrar des Ifoghas alone. At the very least, they would first take time to consolidate their gains (perhaps weeks or months) before then instructing an African-led force to march into Kidal, Tessalit, and beyond. As one observer noted on January 22, “France hasn’t shown willingness to do the dirty work” and thus we should not expect for France to eagerly dive into the heart of enemy territory.
Again Paris proved the critics wrong. On January 29, just three days after capturing Gao and one day after retaking Timbuktu, French special forces led the charge to secure the airport serving the former rebel hotbed of Kidal. French and Chadian forces secured the town itself, on the doorstep of the Adrar des Ifoghas, by February 5. Perhaps more impressively, French and Chadian forces rolled into Aguelhok and Tessalit, strategic towns on the edge of the Adrar des Ifoghas, on February 7-8. After these captures, not a single town of significant population was in enemy hands.
(The fall of Tessalit was critical. According to some, the small oasis marks the “geostrategic” epicenter of the Sahara – whoever controlled Tessalit could project power over the region. Andrew Lebovich, a prominent West and North Africa scholar, notes that:
“What is really important about Tessalit is that it has a very large and very good airfield. It is the only military-quality airfield north of Gao…It lets you get all sorts of things into that area, and if you want to stage expeditionary missions, it is better located than others in northern Mali.” (Guardian, 2/4/13)
Luckily for the French-led counterinsurgency, the Islamist rebels have made capturing cities rather easy. In Tessalit, for example, there were no signs of resistance (though some fighters may have blended into the population). But the Chadian contingents now in charge of the city are well-trained (by Sahelian standards) and should be able to repel any potential assault.
So, just like that, only a month after the initial French intervention, the vast majority of the country is secured, the jihadists have scattered, and what remains of the Islamist rebellion are surrounded and watched – Ansar Dine (and maybe members of AQIM) in the Adrar des Ifoghas and MUJAO in small villages outside Gao. All this done with minimal bloodshed by the French-led alliance (only one French soldier has been killed, and a handful of Malian troops). And they’re not done – it would not be surprising to see French Special Forces leading operations in the heart of the Adrar des Ifoghas. Even if militants have provided minimal resistance, France has no doubt taken very seriously the threat and has demonstrated its willingness to eliminate it. So: France 1, naysayers 0.
Of course, not everything will return to normal right away. A heavily-armed, well-motivated insurgency is not likely to give up its ambitions. But like al-Qai’da in Iraq post-2007, or al-Shabaab today, the rebels will likely shift their strategy, reverting from sporting large militias capable of holding large swathes of territory to asymmetric warfare (surprise ambushes, suicide bombings, etc.). While likely to cause a frenzy in the press, asymmetric tactics rarely help rebels quick win back territory (in fact, they are often a sign of weakness – a lesson for another day). Reasonably capable African forces (probably backed by French trainers or special forces) are not likely to fold like the Malian military in March-April 2012.
Addressing humanitarian concerns and drawing up a long-term political solution will require another chapter – one that France alone will not be able to write. But Paris deserves credit. True, the French intervention was not flawless, but from a military perspective, its efficient and well-coordinated efforts exceeded expectations. So: this time around, when observers talk of renewed guerilla warfare, perhaps we should not overreact. For me, I’ll put my money on Marianne to once again save the day.
(Note: If this post was the story of how France took back northern Mali, subsequent posts will cover why – why was France well-suited for this military adventure in the Sahara, and why did they intervene? Stay tuned.)