Given that the hostage situation in Algeria is ongoing, the foreign governments with kidnapped nationals have been largely reticent in their statements, but it is clear that there is already considerable concern over Algeria's handling of the rescue operation. The disparity between initial reports and reports later tonight highlight the ambiguity surrounding the ongoing events in Algeria. British, Japanese, U.S. and French officials remain confused about the situation, and some foreign governments have claimed that Algeria has kept them in the dark.

 

Meanwhile in Mali, where al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb usurped an indigenous rebellion movement in 2012 and through it secured control over the entire northern region of the country -- an area the size of France and Spain combined -- the jihadists are in jeopardy of seeing their goal of controlling territory upended. Having won some early victories by largely routing the Malian army and advancing to the central Malian towns of Diabaly and Konna, the jihadists now find themselves facing resistance from the strengthening intervention force.

 

But West African nations that promised to send troops to fight al-Qaida in Mali are finding it's a lot trickier than they'd hoped to actually get boots on the ground.Political debates, fears that fleeing militants might scatter abroad, and logistics — even feeding the troops— have stalled plans to deploy against the nimble jihadists in Mali.

 

Preparing for the Next Phase of the Mali Intervention

 

Where a few years ago the notion of France sending in troops to fight a war in a former colony would have provoked howls of contempt - not least from the French Left - today with the rise of Islamism and the threat we all face, the rules have been re-written. As we mentioned before France does not have a good reputation in Africa.

 

As France continues to increase its forces in Mali, the configuration of its military operations is becoming clearer. France has deployed 2,300 troops as part of Operation Serval -- 1,400 are in Mali while the rest provide support from Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso and Senegal, among other locations. The French forces have been able to stabilize the battlefield in central Mali by containing the major jihadist advances at Diabaly and in the Mopti region. Malian forces, heavily supported by the French, have also been able to finally take back control of Konna near Mopti.

 

The ground combat forces involved in Operation Serval are organized into three task forces made up of infantry companies with light armored support. A part of the French fighter-bomber force consisting of Mirage fighters has been relocated from its base in Chad to the military airport in Bamako.

 

As the battlefield in Mali evolves, the planned African intervention force is growing and its timetable for deployment is being accelerated in response to the jihadists' aggressive military moves. With France containing the jihadists and protecting the staging area of the intervention, the African forces are preparing to move into northern Mali, where they will be backed by Western logistical, intelligence and air support. Originally, the force was meant to include only 3,300 African soldiers on top of 2,600 Malian troops. At present, Chad, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Niger, Senegal, Togo, Benin, Guinea and Ghana have pledged around 5,760 troops for the operation. Nigerian and Togolese troops have already arrived in Bamako, and Chadian troops are in Niger, from which they will fly to Bamako alongside the Nigerien contingent.

 

Chad has committed to deploying 2,000 soldiers, a considerable share of the African forces. The reason could be that the Chadian government is reacting to the Malian military's weak performance in holding off the jihadist advance prior to the French intervention. The unexpected jihadist offensive, followed by the French intervention, sped up the process of deploying the African intervention force. There might not be time for extended training of Malian forces in the schedule of current operations. Chadian forces, which have been trained by the French military over the past few years, could bridge that gap because they would require less time to prepare for integrating and operating with the other forces. Nigeria has also increased its commitment to a contingent of 1,200 troops -- as well as F-7 and Alpha jet aircraft, which will add to the air assets of the intervention force -- making its contribution the second largest in the African force.

 

Coming Saturday's summit of West African regional bloc ECOWAS in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, aims to flesh out plans for ramping up its military role alongside the French soldiers now leading the combat.

The mobilization of this African force, as well as the fast deployment of French forces and their logistical support, depends heavily on the contributions of Western countries. The United Kingdom, Canada, the United States, Germany, Denmark and Belgium have all put transport aircraft at the disposal of France to fly equipment into Mali and to collect the African forces around West Africa to move them into the country. The European Union has also committed to setting up a training mission -- to be led by France -- that will increase the efficiency of the Malian army.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its Malian proxies, Ansar Dine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, have until now been able to employ highly mobile formations of roughly company-sized units using "technical" or trucks with mounted weapons and also armed with assault rifles, heavy machine guns, and light to medium mortars and rockets. These jihadist formations did prove highly successful against a demoralized and ill-equipped Malian force with negligible air support. The jihadists are fully aware, however, that such formations are very vulnerable against a French force that can mass enormous firepower, especially with air power.

The jihadists have reportedly abandoned most of their positions in the major urban areas of Azawad. The rebels left Timbuktu and Kidal during the night (as they did Gao earlier). Rather than present a concentrated and visible target for the French air force, the rebel strategy is likely to avoid a direct fight against superior firepower, relying instead on insurgent tactics against the French and their allies when and if they proceed into northern Mali.

France and its Western allies' networks of intelligence, surveillance, also bolster intervention forces and reconnaissance assets, which help them maintain situational awareness over the battlefield. Large jihadist formations and columns operating on open terrain -- as is the case of much of northern Mali with the exception of the mountainous Kidal region -- are particularly visible and thus vulnerable to airstrikes. Using cover of assimilation among the indigenous population -- hiding among civilian traffic -- will be the tactic used by jihadist to counter the technical advantages held by the French and other intervention forces.

It is very likely that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its jihadist rebels in Mali will soon be forced to abandon their objective of comprehensive territorial control as well as its conventional warfare strategy. As the French and the other intervention forces drive back the jihadists and consolidate security in central Mali, and then gradually push into northern Mali to reclaim that sanctuary from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the jihadists will have an opportunity to use their superior knowledge of the terrain, local indigenous militia relationships, and guerrilla tactics to inflict casualties on their enemy. Their conduct of fighting will transition to a more dispersed insurgency that relies on ambushes, improvised explosive devices, and small-scale hit-and-run attacks. The jihadists will also rely on their networks among ethnic Tuareg rebel groups, whom for tactical fighting and intelligence purposes al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb members deliberately married into in recent years.

The jihadists and their proxies cannot hope to win a conventional conflict against the French, or the multinational African force backed by French and Western firepower and assistance. But al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb can hope to outlast the interventionists and survive in their adopted home, and indeed may have little choice given the poor options for relocation in a region filled with similarly if not even more hostile governments. The more painful the militants can make the push into northern Mali and subsequent pacification effort, the more they can hope to turn the French, Western and African public opinion against the intervention in the country, and while doing so, preserve a base capability to survive for a future campaign.

The current operations in Mali and the mobilization of African forces constitute phases one and two of the mission, and the next phase, expected in a few weeks, will see ground forces begin pushing into northern Mali.

However it won't be easy, the French-led assault on the north must manage to force most of the Salafi fighters out of the populated areas presently under their control and install a viable African-led security force that can hold the population centres for several years. If that weren't difficult enough, French and international diplomats next must create space for the establishment of a much more representative and less corrupt Malian government, one which can and will negotiate an equitable resolution to the decades long conflict with the Touareg peoples of the North, whose latest attempt violently to carve out a quasi-independent zone in the north early last year helped create the political and security vacuum so expertly, if ruthlessly, exploited by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM) and its allied radical groups.

 

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