Jan 11, 2013 | 18:09 GMT

3 mins read

Mali: A Possible Prelude to Western Intervention

Mali: A Possible Prelude to Western Intervention

Western forces have deployed to central Mali in what may be a prelude to military intervention. After significant territorial gains by jihadist fighters in early January, French and German special operations forces reportedly were sent to support defensive operations in the Mopti region — a strategic area and one of the presumed staging grounds for any future incursions into the jihadist-controlled north. By itself, the deployment does not signify the beginning of the long-awaited Western-backed intervention in northern Mali, but it might indicate that plans for such an intervention have now hastened. 

Media reports suggest that the troops arrived at the airport on the outskirts of Sevare, a city in the region of Mopti, on Jan. 10. Reportedly they landed in two C-160 cargo aircraft, and four attack helicopters have also arrived. The equipment and personnel ostensibly will be used for logistics and weaponry assistance.

The deployment probably was triggered by operations launched Jan. 7 by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its affiliate groups, including Ansar Dine and Movement for Jihad and Unity in West Africa. Most likely, the jihadists wanted to pre-empt what they deemed a forthcoming intervention. And indeed the jihadists had every reason to believe an intervention was imminent: French military commanders already in Bamako have said an EU military training mission will begin in February, and West African militaries have continued to state their readiness to contribute forces. The jihadists thus wanted to extend their reach as far as possible to counter pending operations against them.

Mali: A Possible Prelude to Western Intervention

Mali Jihadist Battlefield

Ansar Dine held control over the nearby town of Douentza but launched offensive operations against Konna and Sevare, which along with Douentza form an informal line that divides northern and southern Mali. In part, the group hoped to capture the nearby airport and thus deny potential intervention forces a staging ground for future attacks. Meanwhile, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb sought to deprive potential intervention forces of a staging area near Mauritania. The jihadist group reinforced its defenses in the city of Lere, which is the first checkpoint in northern Mali from Mauritania to Timbuktu.

Interestingly, these operations, which meant to pre-empt foreign interveners, most likely prompted the deployment of Western troops. Given that they are meant for defensive rather than offensive operations, the troops will probably succeed at ensuring security in central Mali and blocking any further territorial maneuvers to southern Mali by jihadist forces. They will also re-establish and stabilize the battleground in southern and central Mali.  

But that is not to say they will intervene in northern Mali immediately. Much has to be done before a more comprehensive intervention can take place. Coordination and intelligence activities will be conducted in the coming weeks as Malian, West African, European and U.S. security officials prepare for military intervention. European military forces can be expected to deploy additional forces to southern Mali to train and augment Malian forces. Moreover, a roughly 3,300-strong West African and African Union military contingency will be assembled in the coming weeks and deployed to southern Mali. Training and coordination must take place in southern Mali — a process that could take multiple months — before intervention forces can venture into northern Mali.

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