French military forces conducted airstrikes Jan. 14 in northern Mali against Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb positions. France is leading what will become a multinational intervention in the West African country in order to deny sanctuary and territory to jihadists. Paris holds deep experience and interests in the region, dating to when the area formed an integral part of France's colonial empire.
The Francois Hollande administration has staged fighter jets in France and in Chad as well as helicopters in Burkina Faso and Niger to launch strikes in Mali's Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu regions. The air attacks are aimed to disrupt jihadist fighting capabilities and to secure the territory in advance of ground forces. The French intervened with air and ground assets to blunt a two-pronged offensive by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb forces that threatened the stability of the already fragile Malian army and territory deep in southern Mali.
While French aviation assets, likely provided targeting data by U.S. and other allied surveillance, are establishing a line of control in central Mali, ground troops from West Africa and the African Union are mobilizing to support the intervention. Troops from several West African countries including Nigeria, Niger, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Benin, Ghana and Togo are being readied for deployment into southern Mali. Military trainers from other Western countries, including the United States, Canada, Spain and Germany will deploy to train West African forces as well as the Malian army. Security forces from Mauritania and Algeria are being ordered to their borders with Mali to try to prevent Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb not only from relocating across those borders but from resupplying their positions in Mali with war-fighting materiel.
The French, Western and African forces will eventually stage ground operations in northern Mali, aiming to recover the territory, when troops arriving in southern Mali receive sufficient training, integration and coordination. Launching ground operations prematurely in northern Mali could not only risk defeat but also allow the scattered jihadist forces to regroup later in the West African and North African regions. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb will likely adopt guerilla-style attacks against interventionist supply lines to undermine French and African operations and morale, hoping to trip up allied forces and force a withdraw. Malian forces alone have been insufficient to defeat jihadist forces and will remain unable to recover territorial control without external intervention.
Bringing Malian and allied African military forces into a somewhat common degree of interoperability will take months, though time is not necessarily friendly to any of the armed actors involved in Mali. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is compelled to reinforce its defenses and positions before the breadth of interventionist forces deploy. Interventionist forces are compelled to deploy into Mali before Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb can reinforce or shift its positions. While interventionist forces may benefit from pertinence and resolve, permitting them to marshal more resources, they must still confront a geographically and climatically hostile battlespace absent friendly elements and under enemy control.