Andy Morgan writes: Fortunately for the French, there’s been no sign of the surface-to-air missiles that the Salafist mujahideen in northern Mali are reported to have stolen from Libya. But taking control of the skies is one thing, winning a ground war and restoring peace is an altogether different prospect.
The French government claim they are merely softening up the territory for military intervention led by the Malian army and a coalition of regional Ecowas forces. What they have failed to mention is that the Malian army hasn’t won a military encounter against Tuareg rebels in the north since the early 1960s, at least not without the help of pro-government Tuareg and Arab militias who know the terrain. Unfortunately, these militias won’t be on hand to help this time round – not in the short term at least.
The north of Mali is as alien to the average soldier from southern Mali as the Alaskan tundra is to a citizen of Massachusetts or Manchester. That sense of alienation will be felt even more keenly by troops from Nigeria, Senegal, Benin and Ivory Coast, used to jungle and savannah bush warfare, when they finally roll onto the vast treeless plains of the southern Sahara.
This is the land where the local Tuareg or Arab in his souped-up turbo 4×4 is king. Iyad Ag Ghali, the Tuareg leader of the Salafist Ansar Dine militia, is a master of the kind of hit-and-run guerrilla warfare that suits the desert conditions and the sheer size of territory, roughly equal to that of Spain. His mujahideen showed their verve last Sunday by capturing the small town of Diabaly, north of Mopti, with a lightening strike that originated over the border in Mauritania. This ability to crisscross borders is another important aspect of the Islamists’ Houdini-esque style of combat. [Continue reading…]