By William Tucker
On Friday, January 11th, French military forces were thrust into the midst of the Malian conflict in response to a recent Islamist offensive that was driving south. The Islamist offensive initially assaulted the central city of Mopti, and the nearby city of Sevare – which hosts the Mopti airport – before becoming bogged down. Rather than fight a protracted battle with the Malian military and risk heavy losses, the Islamists pulled back to the north and took the central village of Konna. With so much talk of an international intervention in the conflict – initially scheduled to commence in September of this year – it is likely that the Islamist movements decided to move further south to avoid being trapped in the north. This decision may not have accounted for the possibility of an earlier intervention by France, or any other capable western military. In essence, the offensive to avoid being trapped in the north actually forced the time table to move up. Islamist forces were able to respond rather quickly to the French aerial campaign by taking the village of Diabaly, while abandoning other villages to the north. With the French claiming that their military commitment will be short lived and limited to containment, the Islamists sought, and found, an opening to move south in an effort to complicate that strategy.
Since Friday, the Malian military, backed by French airpower, have retaken Konna and are likely to move on Douentza. To the west, ground forces will eventually be forced to tackle Islamists in Diabaly and eventually move to the north to first retake Nampala, then Lere. With Islamists ceding the center of the north-west divide, they have forced the Malian military, and other yet to be deployed international forces, to split to the east and west of the Mopti airport to eject the Islamists from their recent gains along Mali international borders. This prevents the Malian military and allied forces from massing around Mopti and taking the initiative to fight the Islamists on a northward trajectory. This represents a dual effort to protect Bamako in the south and push the Islamists further north toward the Ahaggar mountains in southern Algeria. Furthermore, the international forces will be forced to deal with the smaller forces moving southward first as they cannot move forward and risk having some rebel forces behind the front lines around Mopti. For the Islamists, this strategy is nothing but a time buying measure. By breaking out of their northern held territory, the Islamists will complicate their supply lines, but doing so will allow their forces still in the north to consolidate troops, resupply weapons caches and forward deployed troops, and plant IED’s along transportation routes all in an effort to slow the eventual international advance. Additionally, this groundwork will also greatly complicate efforts to provide humanitarian aid, thus further slowing an allied advance.
Oddly enough, the Islamists may prepping for a gradual retreat to the Ahaggar mountains. Of the three larger Islamist groups in Mali at the moment – Ansar Dine, Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao), and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – all have lived and operated in southern Algeria for quite some time. This, of course, is exactly where the international forces would seek to force the Islamist groups in hopes that the Algerian military could backstop the northward retreat, thus trapping the rebel forces. This can only be accomplished, however, if Mauritanian forces are able to protect their common border with Mali to the west. Truth be told, as I have stated here at IHS previously, any clearing operation will take a significant amount of time because battle-lines will be fluid and humanitarian considerations for Malians still in the north cannot be ignored. While the Islamists will put up a rather protracted fight, they will also see the value in withdrawing from combat and returning after international forces begin to withdraw. The Sahel offers plentiful territory that many local, nation-state governments have found difficult to control, thus allowing these Islamist groups plenty of opportunity to escape pressure. Though the rapid, as opposed to a delayed, international venture is a welcome approach to fighting the Islamist takeover of north Mali, it is hardly an all encompassing response to a long complicated problem of non-state militancy in the region.