Washington's policy since 9/11 has been to deny sanctuary to militants in order to prevent transnational and regional threats from developing. In Africa this policy has been put into practice in Somalia, but it has also been used across the globe, from Yemen and Pakistan to the Philippines and Indonesia.
To pursue its sanctuary denial policy, the United States places indigenous forces in a leading role in maintaining regional security. Washington facilitates that role by deploying U.S. intelligence and command and control capabilities, as well as by offering limited support with special operations forces and airstrikes. These force enablers assist governments in establishing security throughout their territories and denying sanctuary to destabilizing elements that take advantage of security vacuums. The mission is not necessarily to annihilate these elements, but to degrade their abilities as much as possible while applying enough pressure to the surviving elements to keep them dispersed and focused on survival. This policy is not without risks, however; in Yemen, for example, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has successfully used the U.S. approach as a recruiting tool.
The United States sees an intervention in Mali as a critical component to denying sanctuary to jihadists and disrupting a coalescing threat. However, this does not mean Washington will lead the intervention or commit significant forces of its own. A Western-backed intervention in Mali will likely use the same template as current operations in Somalia do. There, some 16,000 ground troops — part of an alliance led by African Union and Ethiopian forces — have effectively limited al Qaeda-affiliated al Shabaab militants to carrying out guerilla operations in the rural wastelands of southern Somalia and, to a lesser extent, in the remote mountains of the country’s Puntland region, where they are systematically degraded through offensive ground assaults and targeted strikes.
Unique Operational Constraints
A similar plan for Mali will face several constraints. One plan under development calls for the deployment of some 3,300 ground troops by the Economic Community of West African States, in addition to the deployment of a similar number of troops from the Malian army. Western backers of the plan, including France and the United States, have openly agreed to provide funding, training and logistical support. These participants will also provide command and control capabilities, communications, intelligence, advanced strike capabilities, air support and limited assistance from special operations forces. Moreover, they will use command organizational structures such as the U.S. Africa Command to help coordinate actions. The United States has emphasized that a robust counterinsurgency capability needs to be considered while planning an operation.
Northern Mali's size presents a formidable challenge for military forces. The area is roughly as big as France and is part of the broader Sahel region, which extends into all of the states abutting northern Mali. The planned intervention force is relatively small compared to the manpower that would be needed to secure such a sizeable region, obligating planners to commit a large portion of forces to seizing objectives such as the urban strongholds of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal.
The desert terrain of northern Mali and the Sahel restricts large volumes of military vehicles to the limited number of rudimentary roads within the region, whereas militants can disperse using paths known only by local inhabitants and transportation methods such as camels that are better suited to the environment. To counter this, the United States and its allies will rely heavily on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets such as unmanned aerial vehicles and conventional aircraft to monitor enemy movements, direct allied forces and strike at targets out of ground forces' reach.
Intelligence activities will be crucial to an intervention because they will facilitate the efficient deployment of combatants. Since the operation will affect an area that overlaps several international boundaries, it will also demand containment assistance from Mali’s immediate neighbors — particularly Algeria, Niger and Mauritania. These countries' long borders and limited military capabilities mean Western assistance will be needed to establish and maintain containment. Any failure to secure borders and contain militants attempting to disperse and survive will mitigate the effectiveness of a ground invasion in Mali.
The next constraint is target discrimination. An array of armed clans and groups is constantly moving throughout northern Mali. Part of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s strategy in Mali is to assimilate into indigenous Tuareg militias and the civilian population. Recognizing which group of armed militants to engage will be critical in degrading al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb's abilities. Targeting the wrong group could unite the entire region against the intervention, as has happened in Yemen.
Though intelligence assets will be heavily relied upon in Mali, they will be substantially limited by the breadth of the area involved and by the poor communications infrastructure. Intelligence connections will have to be cultivated through friendly Tuareg militias
like the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad. Third-party countries with intelligence inroads in the region, such as Algeria, will be vital to operational success in this regard. Algerian support will be critical for tactical success, but garnering it will require careful diplomacy. Algiers is resistant to the idea of a military intervention because of the risk that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb could be pushed toward Algeria. The country does not want its own carefully conducted isolation strategy against the jihadists to be undermined, and Algiers has encouraged a negotiated resolution.
One Operation, Many Different Timetables
Differing time requirements among regional and international stakeholders present the final major constraint to any intervention operation. Some actors, including the Malian army and government, seek the immediate deployment of forces to recover control in northern Mali. The longer northern Mali remains out of Bamako's grasp, the greater the risk becomes of Mali's sovereignty and legitimacy in the region being lost to Tuareg groups aligned with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The junta in Bamako has threatened to deploy forces into northern Mali without waiting for assistance. Since little has changed in Malian army's capabilities since its collapse, it would risk defeat and thus open the door to an invasion of southern Mali by militant forces, likely triggering a rash international intervention to prevent Mali from collapsing.
Bamako's political interests notwithstanding, Western forces need time to assemble and train a ground force. Parts of the Malian army disintegrated after the coup in Bamako and have yet to be rebuilt. The West African force being assembled to augment Malian forces will be cobbled together from several different African countries, including Nigeria, Guinea, Ghana, Chad and Senegal. These troops must all be well-versed in fighting skills and war doctrine. They need to be able to communicate with one another, and they must be able to communicate with the units from supporting countries that will be providing close air support and intelligence activity.
The long war must also be considered — not just the immediate action of displacing militants — and this presents a challenge for military planners in Mali, Algeria and the West
. Bamako’s poor attempts at combating the insurgency in the north triggered the March coup in the first place. Any intervention that does not consider the counterinsurgency in the next phase will simply recreate the initial problem. A number of long-term commitments — including funding, continued training, cooperation from Mali's neighbors and the support of Western forces — must be secured and planned out before a force intervenes in Mali. Any intervention that has not accounted for these needs will be premature.