Monday, January 28, 2013

Not Enough Good Jihadis

It's great that the French have moved so quickly to help secure Gao and Timbuktu. I'd rather have jihadis scrambling around in the desert than sitting in the urban areas. And the people who had to endure the jihadi rule are surely pleased. But I'd rather have dead jihadis. If the French can't do that, al Qaeda might yet have some impressive advances of their own to boast as they counter-attack.

One thing lacking from the reports of rapid French advances is any sign that the French are killing jihadis:

French Col. Thierry Burkhard, the chief military spokesman in Paris, said that there had been no combat with the Islamists who have ruled Timbuktu for nearly 10 months, but that the forces did not yet control the town as of Monday afternoon.

Nor were there any reports of dead jihadis at Gao. This is a problem, because the Mali army isn't going to be able to hold if the jihadis counter-attack any more than they could hold pre-intervention when the jihadis started chasing the Mali army toward Bamako:

The French said Mali's weak military must finish the job of securing Timbuktu. But they have generally fared poorly in combat, often retreating in panic in the face of well-armed and battle-hardened Islamists.

The French-led military operation against the Islamists, who seized the northern half of Mali last year, began 17 days ago when the insurgents encroached further toward the south.

It has scored several successes, but hard questions remain about how the Mali government will hold the cities that have been wrested from the Islamists, and whether there is the will and the ability to chase them into the Sahara which is home to many of these desert fighters.

With so few troops and so much territory, winning must use urban objectives as opportunities to kill and disperse the enemy. Especially since the Mali troops have not demonstrated that they can withstand a sudden enemy attack.

I did say the jihadis' best option was to avoid defending locations and instead evade and then strike the hapless defenders left to hold whatever is taken from them. The French need a variation of this option by killing jihadis so that the remnants are unable to easily overwhelm the garrisons that hold the urban centers:

Relatively small forces are contesting a very large area. Under those circumstances, standing on defense to hold so many fixed locations will use up available forces. Both sides need to go on offense to keep the enemy reacting and unable to hit those fixed locations.

The French and Mali government also cannot afford to make this a counter-insurgency fight against the local Tuaregs. Remember, foreign Islamists won't be waging an insurgency if the local Tuaregs don't support the jihadis. Al Qaeda will just be roving bands of killers fighting as irregulars. That's different. As long as the Tuaregs can be brought sufficiently on board, small French forces can hunt and kill the jihadis. ECOWAS forces could offer some help but mostly garrison the urban centers.

The Mali government may hope that French intervention means they don't have to grant the Tuaregs any autonomy to restore the pre-secession status quo, but they are wrong. France has not committed an army to pacify the Tuaregs. The French have committed an expedition capable of defeating the jihadis in any stand up battle.

And Mali forces are there for window dressing until the political situation in Bamako is addressed and the army can regain enough cohesion to take over garrison jobs from the ECOWAS forces and eventually take over the job of hunting dramatically weakened jihadis roving the desert, desperate for food and water let alone the means to fight.

But the French, who are fully capable of smashing up the jihadis, need to start actually killing jihadis rather than just pushing them around.

UPDATE: Well this is interesting:

A third town in Mali's vast desert north, Kidal, had remained in Islamist militant hands. But Malian Tuareg MNLA rebels, who are seeking autonomy for their northern region, said on Monday they had taken charge in Kidal after Islamist fighters abandoned it. ...

The MNLA Tuareg rebels who say they now hold Kidal have offered to help the French-led offensive against the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamists. It was not clear, however, whether the French and Malians would steer their offensive further towards Kidal, or hold negotiations with the MNLA.

So the jihadis seem to have lost any urban sanctuary. They need support from the Tuaregs if they are to survive and attempt to wage war.

Are the French going to declare war on the Tuaregs and return them into alliance with the jihadis? That's a far more complicated war than the one the French have waged so far.

Or do the French pressure the Mali government to cut a deal with the Tuaregs so everyone can get on with the mission of making more good jihadis?

If the Mali army was capable of fighting, the option of screwing the Tuaregs and returning to the pre-secession days when the Mali army held the northern urban centers and kept the road open would be possible. I just don't think the Mali army can step back in as if the last 9 months hadn't happened. And the ECOWAS forces are unlikely to want that thankless task.