The seizing of the In Amenas natural gas extraction plant in the sandy wastes of southern Algeria and the subsequent deaths of at least 37 foreign nationals who worked at the plant was, of course, a tragic episode. It was also a major strategic blunder by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, leader of the ragtag gang who overran the facility in mid-January. Belmokhtar’s declared aim was to halt the French military action which had just begun in Mali --- or at least to deter other nations from joining the French effort. The outcome was the reverse. The four-day siege of the plant internationalized the crisis in Mali as nothing else could have done.
The Obama Administration had been debating for months how to assess the growing sway of Belmokhtar’s group, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) -- the Pentagon rated its threat potential higher than did the State Department – and then how to counter it. For months, too, the Administration had been cautioning France against military action in Mali ---- action against AQIM and the other Islamist groups which had taken over the northern half of the country. Fighting a tough election, and reeling from the deaths in Benghazi in September of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other US personnel, the Administration was not anxious to see a new conflict in Saharan Africa. So, for example, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton went to Algeria in October and pressed the Algerian government, which sees itself as a big power in the region, to use its influence to crack down on AQIM. Only in December, safely after Obama’s victory, did the Administration finally agree to a French-drafted resolution in the UN Security Council authorizing international action in Mali. Even that called for the creation of a West African military force, with the role of other nations confined to training and equipping this on a leisurely timetable.
Events took over. In January, Islamist forces began to push down into southern Mali, overrunning the gateway town of Konna on January 10. After initial resistance, the Malian army melted away: the road was open to Bamako, the capital. Mali’s president desperately called Paris for help; French President Francois Hollande formally agreed next day, January 11. In reality, Paris had been preparing its intervention for weeks. French Rafale aircraft began strikes against the Islamist forces around Konna that same day, just as the first French ground forces arrived in Mali.
Hollande’s decision took Washington by surprise. Hollande, after all, had pulled French combat forces out of Afghanistan in November, a year earlier than his predecessor had agreed. He had concurred with the Administration’s view that any Security Council resolution on Mali must explicitly call for an African force to bear the combat role; he had indeed been saying for months that France would not send ground troops.
Finally, at the start of January, Hollande had declined to intervene in the Central African Republic, whose government is also under threat from rebel groups. So when French officials began phoning their American counterparts with news that French forces were even then on their way to Mali, the reaction in Washington was “as close to amazement as I’ve seen in a while,” one senior US officer recalled. “We didn’t have him [Hollande] tagged as an interventionist.”
Hollande’s decision should not have caused surprise. France’s grand strategy has not altered fundamentally in fifty years. Its three “circles” of priorities remain the national independence of France’s foreign and defense policies; the defense of Europe; and the meeting of commitments and interests in the wider world – the last meaning in practice mostly interventions in aid of France’s allies in Africa, largely its old colonies. Basic to this strategy is France’s ability to act independently. As Jean-David Levitte, one of France’s most respected diplomats, told Steven Erlanger of the New York Times as the Mali intervention got under way: “We still have a foreign policy, a capacity to act beyond our borders, a capacity to make a difference.” France couldn’t do everything, Levitte said. “But if you don’t have the military means to act, you don’t have a foreign policy.”
The U.S. has in recent years taken advantage of France’s capacity for independent action. France retains three significant military bases in Africa: in Senegal, Gabon and, the largest of the three, at Djibouti on the east coast. US troops occupy another Djibouti base, Camp Lemonnier, relinquished by France. Since America’s newest combatant command, U.S. Africa Command, began operations in fall 2008, U.S. and French forces have quietly collaborated on operations in and around the Horn of Africa. A good deal of intelligence is shared: on Mali, and more generally on the spread of Islamist influence across the Sahara. France has long had access to the take from US surveillance assets.
The Socialist Hollande is a more reluctant interventionist than most of his predecessors. But Mali satisfied his criteria for action: the appeal came from its president; the Security Council’s December resolution sanctioned the principle of intervention; and the main regional grouping, the African Union, supported that resolution.
Nevertheless, the phone call that the French defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, made that Jan 11 to US defense secretary Leon Panetta with news of Hollande’s decision posed particular problems for the Administration. Le Drian asked for American help.
For the second time in almost exactly three years, the Obama Administration found itself being asked to support a small war in Africa after France had acted first and unilaterally. Back in March 2011, then-President Nicolas Sarkozy short-circuited an allied debate on whether to intervene in Libya’s civil war by unilaterally launching air-strikes by French aircraft. In the ensuing conflict, President Obama took stick for the incautious remark by a White House official that the Administration was “leading from behind”, but it was true. The U.S. role in the Libya conflict was far greater than Washington cared to publicize. Without U.S. assistance --- supplying such basics as mid-air refueling and precision attack-munitions; tracking, in real time, movements of Gaddafi’s forces on the ground; even overseeing the creation of ‘target folders’ mapping the optimal routes for strikes against Gaddafi’s forces and facilities. Without all this unpublicized U.S. assistance, France and its European partners would not have been able to continue. At the end of the day, the Pentagon reckoned the Libya expedition had cost the U.S. taxpayer around $900 million--- of which more than $200 million was owed to the U.S. by the Europeans.
The Administration was anxious to avoid a repetition. Le Drian’s first request could be met: the U.S. would use its C-17 fleet to ferry French troops and vehicles into Mali. That was a definable task --- though who would pay was not immediately clear. Similarly, the U.S. could increase the flow of surveillance imagery. But Le Drian’s third request was for U.S. tanker aircraft to refuel the French Rafales. In the intervention in Libya, U.S. tankers refueled the great majority of European strike missions. Facing the near-certainty of deep budget cuts in the course of 2013, the Pentagon was leery of committing to a costly re-run over the expanses of Mali.
There were also legal problems --- nothing a president determined to act could not cut through, but Obama and his advisers were unconvinced. “The U.S. is in the business of getting out of wars at the moment, not getting into new ones,” a former State Department official with African experience was quoted as saying. The same official did note: “The U.S. is also very focused on just how dangerous the situation in Mali is.” But the question inside the Administration was what French intervention could achieve. Yes, the Islamist thrust south posed a threat to Mali. But the country’s fundamental problems are political: a democratic but corrupt government was overthrown in a military coup last March; and the insurrection in northern Mali has its roots in resentment at years of neglect of the region by governments in Bamako. French military intervention could halt the insurgents’ advance; but would France --- and by extension the United States --- find itself doomed to occupy a country whose elite was unwilling to reform? Perhaps inevitably, Washington was viewing Mali through the lens of Afghanistan.
The assault on the In Amenas gas plant changed everything. Three Americans were among the hostages killed in the carnage. Their deaths elevated Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb from being a potential threat to American interests --- the tentative consensus of the Administration’s internal discussions last year --- to being a present and lethal threat. Amenas galvanized Washington to act. France got the tanker support it needed.
Two weeks later, the French expeditionary force has rolled back the insurgents’ thrust south and seems now on the verge of expelling them from the towns they had taken over in the north. French forces are on the outskirts of Timbuctu. Details of the campaign remain sketchy, partly because the journalists who have flocked into Bamako have been kept well back from the front line, but also because much of the reporting has viewed the conflict through the lens of Afghanistan. A neat but deceptive syllogism dominates: the Islamist forces are insurgents; therefore the French are embarked on a counter-insurgency campaign; therefore they will face all the problems of Afghanistan. So, to take only one example, there were weighty predictions that, in face of the French advance, the Islamists would simply hide their weapons and melt into the local population.
The reality is that the Islamist groups which took over northern Mali are overwhelmingly Arab, while the population of Mali --- though Muslim --- is overwhelmingly African. To the local population the Islamists are invaders, who have enforced their rule with much brutality. It is true that the revolt in the north was started by Mali’s own Tuaregs, the nomadic people who --- regarding the Sahara as their realm --- roam through five of the nation states encompassing much of the desert. The Tuaregs’ complaints of neglect and broken promises have much justification. But Islamist groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb took over the revolt in Mali and elbowed the Tuaregs aside.
Militarily, then, Operation “Serval” (African wild cat)--- the name Paris has given to the expedition --- bears no resemblance to an Afghan-style counter-insurgency campaign. Systematically, French special forces are leading small Malian army units on a drive to clear the Islamist fighters from the towns of northern Mali, which lie along the Niger River. Using helicopters to leapfrog assault teams from one town to another, the French have --- clearly by design --- kept up a stunning pace. Islamist groups have tried to slow the advance by blowing one or more of the bridges over the Niger. They seem also to have tried to make a stand in one or more of the towns, but the local populations --- greeting the French as liberators ---have been pointing out the Islamists’ positions. In tactical terms, the campaign so far reinforces two lessons taught in every war college: airpower is deadly against infantry, especially infantry exposed in desert or semi-desert terrain; and speed of attack is a force multiplier.
The worst-case scenario now is that the Islamists hunker down in Timbuktu, in effect taking this fabled World Heritage Site hostage. Certainly, they must know that if they are driven out of all the towns along the Niger, they will lose access to the resources --- fuel, water, weaponry --- they need to operate as more than gangs of desert bandits. One interesting question then would be whether France and the U.S. will continue to pursue the Islamists into the depths of the Sahara and use airpower to wipe them out. The latest reports that the U.S. is seeking to set up a base for drone operations in Mali’s neighbor, Niger, suggests that a lengthier campaign of destruction is seen, at least, as an option.
Meanwhile, Operation Serval looks set to enter military textbooks as a case-study in what has identifiably become the French Way of War. In the mid-1980s, France sent forces into Chad to repel an attempted invasion by Libya; almost thirty years apart, the two expeditions share many characteristics: a small French combat force; a bare-bones support force in-country; an abbreviated chain-of-command both in country and in Paris; effective leadership of carefully selected units of the local forces ---- and essential support from the United States. Against the Libyan forces in Chad, French Jaguar aircraft flew strikes out of Brazzaville in the Congo. The U.S. flew in all the logistics needed to support those strikes. Plus ça change….