Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Mission Accomplished?

The French, without actually killing many Mali jihadis, is already preparing to hand off post-major combat operations responsibilities to the demonstrably brittle Mali army and the polyglot ECOWAS contingent. This was no blitzkrieg. It was a phony war.

The French rolled into the airport at Kidal, and then entered the city:

French troops took control on Wednesday of the airport of Mali's northeast town of Kidal, the last urban stronghold held by Islamist rebels, as they moved to wrap up the first phase of a military operation to wrest northern Mali from rebel hands.

A three-week ground and air offensive by French forces aimed at initially ending a 10-month Islamist rebel occupation of major towns is expected to eventually hand over to a larger African force.

The Africans' task will be rooting out insurgents hiding in the desert and mountains near Algeria's border.

"Eventually" won't be that long, it seems:

"Now it's up to African countries to take over," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told Le Parisien newspaper. "We decided to put the means — in men and supplies — to make the mission succeed and hit hard. But the French aspect was never expected to be maintained. We will leave quickly."

So ECOWAS troops will be asked to do this job? Good luck with that.

What about the Tuaregs? The non-jihadi Tuareg secessionists have moved into Kidal. Are they a target, too, of the French-supported African military effort?

If not for the number of jihadis who flocked to Mali over the last year and who escaped the French road march north, I'd say that the French plan could have worked. ECOWAS forces, with Mali troops tagging along, could have held the cities and kept the roads open and done as good a job as Mali had done in controlling the north before the coup and collapse of their army.

But if the Tuaregs again decide on an alliance of convenience with the jihadis who were pushed out of the cities without being defeated, garrisoning the towns and patrolling the roads won't be good enough. The jihadis will be able to bide their time and strike again. Can Mali and ECOWAS garrisons hold?

Can these African troops really go out into the field to chase down the jihadis?

This is the problem with leading from behind. At any moment you might find yourself in front despite your best efforts to avoid point:

Plans to base unarmed American surveillance drones in the African nation of Niger highlight the Obama administration's growing concern about extremist influences in the volatile region. They also raise tough questions about how to contain al-Qaida and other militant groups without committing U.S. ground forces in yet another war.

Those African troops are going to need armed drones, have no doubt. When I heard this news, I was fine with it. I've said that it is appropriate for us to help with logistics, intelligence, and special forces (including drones). If the French wanted to take the lead in their sphere of influence, I'd even help them with air power in emergencies to keep them in the fight so we don't have to take the lead to kill jihadis.

But the French are bugging out--after declaring victory. Behold the nuance of their exit strategy!

Unless the Tuaregs are brought on board to lead the fight outside the cities against al Qaeda, at best the jihadis will simply be too busy gnawing away at Mali and ECOWAS forces to focus on terrorist attacks in the region or beyond. The real war has not begun yet.

UPDATE: This is encouraging:

Mali's president offered Tuareg rebels talks on Thursday in a bid for national reconciliation after a French-led offensive drove their Islamist former allies into mountain hideaways.

What is not encouraging is the picture accompanying the article of French troops with their wheeled armored personnel carriers with a caption calling them "tanks." No tracks. Not even a turret. But it is big and green. So they must be "tanks."

Fashion reporters would never be so ill-informed about their subject.

But I digress.