French plan for Mali intervention not so “crap” after all.

As 2012 wound up and Malian’s contemplated the worst year in their independent history, the UN announced its imaginative new strategy for dealing with the country’s crisis: nothing until September 2013. Prior to this Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, described the French plan for intervention in Mali as “crap”.

At this point the spectre of another Somalia or Africa’s Afghanistan looked like a horrifyingly realistic prospect as the international community turned its back on the black hole that Mali was becoming.

At the outset of the Mali crisis I felt that the worst possible scenario was France getting involved on its own. Being the former colonial power it has complicated relations with the different parties, and their intersts in the resources of the region worried me. But now I find myself in a strangely upbeat mood. At last someone is doing something.

Ironically the UN/US strategy may have given France the opening it needed by lulling the islamists forces into a false sense of secuirty. Iyad Ag Ghaly, the great strategist of Ansar Dine and leader of the recent push to Konna, seems to have decided to capitalise on the international paralysis by making the quick push west from the frontline of Douentza to Konna just 90kms from  the strategically important airfield at Sevare. To do this he has taken all his strongest fighters from Timbuktu and Gao. If the islamists had taken the airport it would have meant the only airstrip to land troops being 600kms away in Bamako, making an international deployment in the future more difficult. 

France seized the moment. It seems they saw that Ag Ghaly had made a strategic blunder. Or had he been lulled into a trap? News started coming in that all the jihadists from Timbuktu and Gao had come south towards Konna, leaving only foot soldiers back in the Gao and Timbuktu. They were out of the towns and had a long way back. So France jumped in, quickly mobilised special troops – serious hard nuts who were based in Chad – and aircarft and attacked the islamist front line, halting their move westwards and now are picking them off as they retreat.

They have attacked in Gao, Kidal, Lere, Konna.

And back in Timbuktu and Gao there are signs of desertions already. It’s is hard to verify, but I am being told by Tuareg in Burkina that they are hearing that people are even openly smoking in the streets of Timbuktu.

It looks more like the islamists may well have trapped themselves in no man’s land, and it isn’t at all clear that they have a route out now. Algeria, who hitherto have been stalling on any international involvement in Mali (principally because this would take control from them) seem to be working in partnership with France. They have shut their border with Mali and are allowing France to fly over its air space. This is an extraordinary development. Have Algeria have decided to cut their ties to the islamist groups and wash their hands of them now? Wishful thinking perhaps.

France is right to be going in hard and fast. The only way to begin to work towards a lasting peace to the Mali crisis is to eliminate these phoney foreign islamists. Only then can Mali begin to lok for a resolution to it’s constitutional crisis begin with a Malian solution for Mali’s problem. With the foreign islamists in the picture the push to a negotiatiated solution was never realistic. The question who do you negotiate what with whom would not go away! 

We need to be careful about overblowing the islamists’ strength and jihadist intentions. I’ve never felt they were nearly as strong as the UN and US have made them out to be. They are tough bandits and smugglers but jihadists…?  They’ve been handed their strength on a plate, both with the Al Qaeda label offred to them in 2003 and with their current position of strength in Mali. Until the crisis happened (and it wasnt they who launched it, they were opportunists on the back of the MNLA led Tuareg rebellion), very little anti-western jihadist rhetoric had come out from them. They were quite happy being hidden and sanctioned by the powers that be, running their drugs and cigarettes and people smuggling. The US and France and Algeria and Mali were quite happy to have them in place as they could all use them for their own propaganda interests so they’ve never even been on guard of attack. Furthermore they are not the hardened and well trained fighters many like to make of them. Granted they have some good kit now, some nice top-of-the-range French and British surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft missiles sold to Gadaffi, and they are certainly not yet beaten, but they have never been seriously battle tested. There may be a few Mujahadine who have come in now, but their rank and file are footsoldiers who have had litle else to do but to join up.

If French troops can cause a serious dent in the leadership and the main jihadists we may be watching a turkey shoot and a cake walk. Some worry that France may have got itself involved in their own Afghanistan. Funnily enough AQMI say the same thing.

I hope the sudden, swift and hard French action has prevented Mali descending into the Afghanistan/Somalia scenario we may well have had if the UN/USA startegy of doing nothing was left in place.

France’s strategy, so far, is not looking quite so “crap” after all. Bravo Mr Hollande.