London, UK – 15 February 2013

By Marion Ghibaudo

Updated – 25 February 2013


Fighting in Mali could get worse before it gets better as EU prepares for new Nato-like role


The deployment of French combat forces to Mali to fight Islamist insurgents there is far from complete, say experts, and constitutes a high stakes litmus test for the European Union who could potentially take the place of Nato in future global ‘counter-terrorism’ operations.

The French military launched Operation Serval on 11 January with high profile air strikes targeting rebel movements near Mopti and Konna. Those night sorties, reinforced by a ground offensive, carried on in following days and weeks, targeting key Malian cities and pushing further north towards insurgent strongholds.

French night air strikes paved the way for Operation Serval’s ground offensive


Since France’s first strike, the operation has grown, drawing nearly six thousand troops from the multilateral African-led AFISMA or MISMA (International Support Mission for Mali), which was originally authorised by a UN Security Council resolution passed on 20 December 2012. That initiative was supported by ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) and by the EU, but was not meant to take shape until September of this year.

But France’s – and the EU’s – trial by fire began early in January in response to an aggressive push on Mali’s capital by several groups connected to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Observers on the ground noted that the same Islamist militant groups intelligence claimed to be armed and combat ready quickly dispersed ahead of the French Army, who regained control of towns in North Mali, often with minimal resistance.

Fighting AQIM – a long term prospect

While the French Army battled a classically symmetric war; rebel groups practiced asymmetric tactics

French Lieutenant General Jean-Patrick Gaviard told DefenceReport that the apparent retreat by AQ affiliates was executed by design, explaining that while the French Army battled a classically symmetric war; rebel groups practiced asymmetric tactics.

It is a view shared by RUSI’s Raffaello Pantucci. Mali’s Islamist groups were known to be well armed and ready to fight, he said, “but what value is it to them to stand and fight against a superior military force? These are insurgent groups so they melted off in the desert,” the senior research fellow told DefenceReport.

Delaying or avoiding direct engagements has been an effective tactic employed by AQ and AQ-trained groups from the frontlines of Afghanistan to the Horn of Africa to the Arabian Peninsula.

Gaviard, who is the former French Air Defence Commander and a senior Nato mentor, also said that the critical process of reinstating a functioning Malian state is one reason on-going operations will take more than “a few weeks”. It is the kind of time frame that conflicts with French Foreign Office estimates which have said French forces will begin winding down Mali operations in March. A protracted French military presence has also been forecast by senior US State Department officials as recently as 14 February, according to the New York Times.

“France would obviously like to pass military tasks to the Malian armed forces, as well as the African-led AFISMA force, but these are currently unable to prosecute military operations of the breadth and intensity that the French are able to,” said James Hackett of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Hackett told DefenceReport that “the cohesion of the Malian armed forces will have been damaged both by their struggle against the Islamists – and before that the Islamists and allied Tuareg fighters – but also by the results of the March 2012 coup, led by elements of the army.”

This, he said, will make it necessary for post-conflict military training “to start from the bottom up” and will need to “include elements such as rule of law training as well as mission–related tactical military training.”

“State security capacity in the general sense has to be bolstered.”

It is this kind of open-ended assessment that many fear could embroil France in a US-style ‘Global war on Terror’. Expelling AQIM beyond Mali’s borders could be the simplest component of the equation. Standing up sustainable state governance and training Mali’s inexperienced and poorly equipped military could prove exceedingly costly – not just for France, but for the broader debt-weary EU.

And yet it is this very level of European Union commitment that many see as the heir to US-run Nato operations.

Pushing the European Union to fight the ‘Global War on Terror’

“It is a pragmatic evolution of military Europe: operations will, more and more, be driven by the countries that have an interest in intervening with the support of other European countries in the measure of their means,” Raffaello Pantucci told DefenceReport.

While some EU and Nato partners have played a reluctant supportive role in Mali, some of those in the European Parliament see Mali as a case study of future EU strategic operations.

EU MP Arnaud Danjean is the European Deputy and President of the Subcommittee on Security and Defence. As a former French foreign intelligence operative, he views Africa as the focal point of Europe’s security problems.

The EU has identified Sahel as an area that can affect Europe’s security

The EU has identified Sahel as an area that can affect Europe’s security,” Danjean told DefenceReport. He pointed to France’s unaccompanied combat operations as a sign of some reluctance from EU nations who still see Nato as a requisite for multi-nation intervention in places like Mali.

Gaviard agrees, adding that many in Europe still wait to see how the US will respond to global crises and, more importantly, whether they will lead the charge or not.

It is for this reason, he said, that “Nato operations are more easily accepted by European countries than European flagged ones. With Nato, it means the US will engage its full force onto the operation, so there is that insurance.”

As the EU ponders its 15-month commitment to train Malian forces – due to begin in September – it is possible it will face many of the same asymmetric threats that French forces currently face in that country. Leveraging regional instability and weak states has proven to be one of AQIM’s most successful strategies. Like its AQ counterparts in other parts of the world, it will very likely attack multi-nation Mali operations at their weak points – slow reaction times, poor border discipline and stretched logistics.

It is a prospect that will feel undeniably familiar to those of all ranks, services and nationalities who have fought in southwest Asia over the past decade. One significant change will be that, this time, America will view the fight from the sidelines.

Correction –  Spelling of the names ‘Raffaello Pantucci’ and ‘James Hackett’ has been corrected.


Feature photo / “French troops in Bamako” – French MoD

Inset photo / “French Rafale over Mali” – French MoD

By Marion Ghibaudo

Marion Ghibaudo is a French journalist specialising in European defence and security issues.