Mali update – afternoon of 1-27

Events are moving fast in Mali. Here is my brief summary, in roughly chronological order.

First, The Conflict in Mali is an interactive map from the Wall Street Journal. It has a very useful map, another tab with a list & background of the key players, and a timeline. Good resource to check. Locating the cities helps to understand the context.

I’ve been scratching my head about the French requests for heavy transport and in-flight refueling assistance from the U.S. Looks to this simple observer like they cannot project a force of 2,500 troops. It is a good start to have ability to lift the troops into a hotspot. That is only the start.

Just making a totally wild guess, the food, fuel, water, and parts needed to sustain such a force for one day probably weights more than the troops on the ground. And that is without ammo, explosives, jet fuel, and bombs. Further, 2,500 is not a particularly large force.

On 1-27, the Wall Street Journal weighs in on point with their report Why France Can’t Fight.

Four sentences and my barely informed comments.

The French armed forces field some of the world’s most sophisticated fighter jets, nuclear submarines, attack helicopters and armored vehicles.

That’s some serious bucks and high quality front-line equipment. Yet..

…Paris is all but begging for logistical and military support and has come up short on everything from refuelling to surveillance to heavy transport. Independently deploying a brigade-sized force to a country a mere five hours flight-time away is proving a bridge too far.

The infrastructure to project force doesn’t seem to be there. The lack is for in-flight refueling, satellite and drone surveillance, and the heavy lift from planes like the C-17 and C5a.

On paper France has 230,000 men and women in uniform, but only 30,000 are estimated to be deployable on six months notice.

Notice the cutoff – six month notice to deploy would reportedly only be enough time to deploy 30K troops. Hopefully any crisis that requires 20k or 50k troops could be put on hold for 6 months or more.

An AP report in the Wall Street Journal on 1-24 reports a possible split in the rebel groups – Mali Rebel Group Splits.

One of the rebel groups (Ansar Dine), has a leader of a subgroup who says he wants to negotiate with the French. Reports suggest his new group might be willing to fight the other groups.

On 1-26, the Wall Street Journal reports French Forces Advance in Mali.

The article says advance French forces had arrived at the strategic city of Gao, which is well into the area controlled by the militants (that’s the word the WSJ is using to describe the opposition forces). French and African forces are expected to try retaking the town soon.

French armor and Malian troops are reported on the road towards Gao.

The article also says France has 2,500 troops on the ground. They have achieved their planned force level.

On 1-27, the Wall Street Journal reports U.S. Agrees to Support French in Mali with Plane Refueling.

The article says the U.S. agreed on Saturday to provide refueling support. The French have five tankers in Mali and were hoping for the U.S. to provide three more.

Multiple reports indicate French forces have now retaken Goa and control the city. For an example see The GuardianMali rebels melt away in face of French advance.

That article also says the French are advancing on Timbuktu and were at the outskirts of the city on Saturday.

One report on 1-27 suggests the French and Malian forces have taken the Timbuktu airport and were gaining control over that city:  ReutersLiberated Malians celebrate, French-led forces clear Timbuktu.

Don’t be too thrilled with the rapid advances on Gao and Timbuktu. Both of the last two articles mentioned above, from The Guardian and Reuters, raise the possibility that the opposition forces may have merely pulled out in advance of the arrival of troops. They pulled back to nearby mountains and villages. Perhaps they plan to conduct guerilla raids or move back in when the troops leave.

The lack of reports for heavy combat suggests the rebels may have just moved out of the way as enemy troops approached. If so, the battle for Mali isn’t almost over. It has barely begun.

Capturing an abandoned city may be progress, but it isn’t victory.    

Via Meadia points this out in their 1-27 post US Steps up Role in Mali as French Advance:

But as we’ve seen in similar conflicts, taking the major cities is often the easy part. Holding them while fighting a large insurgency is a different story, and the Tuareg live in a vast desert region that crosses many national boundaries.

The post then warns about another complexity – not letting the U.S. pay too much of the cost for the French to maintain their sphere of influence:

Much of west Africa was once part of France’s colonial empire, and France to this day maintains a neo-colonial hold on much of the region. This is a very profitable relationship for French defense companies and other actors… The French want to preserve this status quo, but they want other people to pay for it as much as possible. … France believes in “smart neo-colonialism” that maintains the French sphere of influence at minimal cost to Paris.

Looking at the last week, I think this is gonna’ get messy.

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