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Interesting Article: "Malian Town Falls to Islamist Rebels, France Says" by Steven Erlanger

An interesting article mentioned that town in central Mali had fallen to Islamist insurgents from the north; hours after Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said his country’s dramatic intervention there had succeeded in blocking a rebel advance that could have had “appalling consequences.” At the same time, an Islamist leader in Mali said France had “opened the gates of hell” for all its citizens by intervening, reinforcing concerns that the far-flung military operation in Africa could inspire vengeance in mainland France. Would you like to know more?

French forces, Mr. Fabius said in a radio interview late Sunday, were now “taking care” of rear bases used by Islamists who took control of much of the north of the country last year after a military coup in the capital, Bamako. The duration of the French operation was “a question of weeks,” Mr. Fabius said, unlike the American-led military campaign in Afghanistan. 

But within hours, reports began to emerge of a rebel counterattack in the small town of Diabaly, north of Ségou on the approaches to the capital — the first indication that the insurgents had regrouped after a wave of French airstrikes. The fighting in the town pitted government forces against rebels seeking to press southward under heavy fire from the air.

The French intervention, which began on Friday and continued over the weekend, appeared to halt the main thrust of an Islamist rebel advance further east, as West African nations authorized what they said would be a faster deployment of troops in support of the weak government.

Up until Friday, France was very much the reluctant intervener, investing all of its energy in co-coordinating a multilateral intervention, led by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), to forestall the further advance of Islamist forces in the Sahel region, and in reassuring worried African states, such as Algeria, that France’s days as an ‘African policeman’ were long gone.

The attacks on Islamist positions near the ancient desert trading town of Timbuktu and Gao, the largest city in the north, marked a decisive intensification on the third day of the French mission, striking at the heart of the vast area seized by rebels in April. Residents and rebel leaders had reported air raids early on Sunday in the towns of Lere and Douentza in central Mali, forcing Islamists to withdraw. As the day progressed, French jets struck targets further to the north, including near the town of Kidal, the epicenter of the rebellion. In Gao, a dusty town on the banks of the Niger river where Islamists have imposed an extreme form of sharia law, residents said French jets pounded the airport and rebel positions. A huge cloud of black smoke rose from the militants' camp in the city's north, and pick-up trucks ferried dead and wounded to hospital.

Sanda Ould Boumana, a spokesman for Ansar Dine, one of the Islamist groups that controls northern Mali along with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, known as A.Q.I.M., and its allies, insisted in a telephone interview that the militants had held their ground.

France is determined to end Islamist domination of northern Mali, which many fear could act as a base for attacks on the West and for links with al Qaeda in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa. France’s reticence to intervene has also been a function of the country’s recent departure from Afghanistan, after a significant investment of soldiers and resources. The French were leaving one quagmire, and so were less than eager to enter another.

But watching militant groups – some linked to al-Qaeda – take control of the strategic town of Konno took both regional and international actors by surprise over the past few days. In April, during the uncertainty that followed the country’s military coup, these armed factions ­conquered territory in northern Mali. The move into Konno, however, appeared to threaten the capital city of Bamako, only 600 kilometers to the south. There were genuine fears that the weak Malian army would simply crumble in the face of further provocations from rebel forces.

Last Tuesday, during a visit to Canada, the head of the African Union suggested that NATO countries should participate in an intervention to stabilize Mali. On Thursday, as Islamist fighters advanced even closer to government positions, the interim President of Mali implored the French to come to the assistance of his country. Then the UN Security Council, in an emergency session later the same day, expressed its “grave concern” about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Mali (where more than 400,000 people have been forced the flee the north), and the “urgent” need to address the increased terrorist threat posed by rebel advances. While France and its allies may be able to drive rebel fighters from large towns, they could struggle to prise them from mountain redoubts in the region of Kidal, 300 km (200 miles) northeast of Gao.

For several months, ECOWAS had been pushing for an African intervention to address the situation in Mali, which posed regional security threats, given the continued proliferation of weapons and the presence of armed groups with links to terrorist movements. At the UN, Western diplomacy had followed suit, emphasizing the need for a multilateral intervention led by African states, but supported with hardware and training from the outside. As a result, the December, 2012, Security Council resolution makes African “ownership” explicit in its authorization of the use of force.

But a variety of factors have made the realization of an African mission difficult to achieve.

The first is a capacity problem. As Security Council acknowledged, it would take time to train and equip such a force, particularly for desert conditions, and to engage in the detailed planning necessary to make the mission successful. Thus, the council forecast that the estimated 3,300 troops promised by ECOWAS states would not arrive in theatre for several months – more precisely, September 2013.

Second, regional solutions inevitably bring into play regional rivalries. In this case, Algeria – the most powerful military force in the immediate region – has been wary of having troops from ECOWAS ¬ (an organization to which it does not belong) at its border.

Finally, the Malian army itself has been lukewarm about being on the receiving end of support from its African neighbors, given the involvement of ECOWAS troops in human-rights abuses in previous missions in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Human Rights Watch reports claim that while West African forces helped restore security in these crises – which took place over a decade ago – they were also complicit in serious violations of international humanitarian law, including looting, harassment, and arbitrary detention of civilians, as well as – in the case of Sierra Leone – summary executions of suspected rebels.

To understand how vested the west is in Mali, here's a look at what countries are providing to help Mali's battle against armed Islamic extremists who have occupied the north since March. West African nations authorized immediate deployment and France launched attacks last week after fighters pushed even further south, toward the capital, Bamako.

France's resources in what they call Operation Serval include:

_200 troops from Operation Epervier in Chad have been flown into Bamako. This includes some French Foreign Legionnaires. And a company of the 2nd marine infantry regiment based in Auvours, France was moved into Bamako on Saturday.

_Gazelle helicopter gunships from the 4th helicopter regiment of the special forces armed with HOT anti-tank missiles and 20mm cannons. The 4th regiment, based in Pau, France, has 12 of these helicopters.

_ Four Mirage 2000D fighter jets, based in Chad, and supported by two C135 refueling tankers. In total, France has two Mirage F1 CR reconnaissance jets, six Mirage 2000D, 3 C135s, one C130, 1 Transall C160 stationed in Chad as part of its Operation Epervier.

_Four Rafale fighter jets were quickly moved Sunday from their base in Saint-Dizier France to Mali, where they began bombing operations on Sunday.


_Two C-17 aircraft to carry foreign troops and military equipment to Mali. One C-17 is currently in France and the other is currently at RAF Brize-Norton in England.

_Britain is not offering any troops, but Mark Simmonds, the government minister for Africa, said British personnel also could be involved in training the Malian army.

U.S.: U.S. officials have said they offered to send drones to Mali. France's foreign minister said that the U.S. is providing communications and transport help.

GERMANY : German officials have ruled out sending any combat troops to support Mali, but Defense Ministry spokesman Stefan Paris said that Germany is looking into what kind of help the country could provide if asked, including logistical and medical support.

EU: The European Union says it is speeding up its preparation for a troop training mission in Mali, which will now likely be launched in the second half of February or early March, but the EU is not planning any direct combat role.

BURKINA FASO: Will send 500 troops to Mali and 500 others to control the northern border. Check points have also been set up in Burkina Faso on roads to its northern border with Mali.

MAURITANIA: Mauritanian armed forces were placed on high alert along the border with Mali. The president says the country would not take part in the fighting in northern Mali. The Mauritanian army had conducted raids in 2010 and 2011 against the bases of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb in northern Mali.

NIGER: Will send 500 troops to Mali to help fight the Islamic extremists. Date for their departure not yet set.

NIGERIA: An undetermined number of troops to be sent.

SENEGAL: Will send 500 troops to Mali to help with combat.

Yet, one country which has significant interests in Mali, China, has not contributed nor stated anything about Mali. Interesting enough, let’s just take a quick look at China's interest in Mali:

In Niger, for instance, where France has a program of military cooperation, a Chinese company operates what is China's largest uranium mine, at Azelik--breaking what was a defacto monopoly on Niger's reserves once enjoyed by France.

China also runs a major oilfield and has signed a deal to upgrade the country's power supplies.

In Chad, where per capital income is about900 per year, the French have a large air force base that is being used for their offensive in Mali. The Chinese have a different kind of operation: their national petroleum corporation is backing a1 billion dollar project, to lay 300 kilometers of pipelines from oilfields in Southern Chad to a Chinese-built refinery near the capital, Ndjamena. The refinery is jointly owned by China and Chad. China is also building a new international airport nearby.

The Ivory Coast, once a jewel of the French colonial crown, also has a French military base, and lots of French business interests. But just two days before President Hollande intervened in Mali, it was announced in Abidjan, that China and the Ivory Coast had agreed on a massive500 million low-interest loan from China's Export Import bank -- to finance the construction of a hydropower station -- by a Chinese engineering firm -- that will be the largest in the country and will export power to neighboring countries.

China is also drilling for oil in the Cameroon, building an airport and port in Mauritania, importing cotton from Burkina Faso, making huge deals for iron ore in Guinea and Sierra Leone, while building schools, hospitals, stadiums, not to mention railway lines all over the continent.

So why is China willing to make such massive gambles in a part of the world where governments seem to change from week to week, and huge countries like Mali, which used to be considered one of West Africa's most stable regimes, can disintegrate into chaos almost overnight?

Part of it is that China, to fuel its soaring economy, is willing to get along with just about anyone in power. They're not out to organize coups, overthrow regimes or impose their views.

And in much of West Africa, at least, they've probably been bolstered by the thought that, when the chips were down, highly trained and equipped French and American troops would help keep chaos at bay.

Indeed, the Pentagon is building small, discrete bases -- known as lily-pads -- across the continent, and has also assigned more than three American thousand troops to work with and train African solders to deal with "terrorist" threats, like the one that's just exploded in Mali.

If the presence of those foreign troops ultimately rubs the native population the wrong way, due to anything from cultural differences to civilian deaths in collateral damage, it's the French and/or Americans and their African military allies who will have to take the heat.

Without any of their own boots on the ground, without helicopter gunships or drones in the air, and not a single base outside of China, it won't be the Chinese.

That's how it's been in many other parts of the world, particularly the Middle East: the Chinese have had a free ride, with the U.S. and its allies patrolling key trade routes, intervening in the name of political stability.

At least, that's the way it was. But with the French and other NATO countries more reluctant to intervene than ever, and with the U.S. military facing major budget cuts, the day will soon come when China will have to pick to pick up its own security tab, protect its own trade routes, become a major cop on the global beat.

Many of China's leaders know that. Which is part of the reason for their on-going military buildup, particularly the navy. They've also already made a deal to train Afghan soldiers now that the U.S. is pulling out.

With all the activity, the west stands to gain from assisting the locals in Mali, for example, in Bamako, the city's streets were calm, with the sun streaking through the dusty air as the seasonal Harmattan wind blew from the Sahara. Many cars had French flags draped from the windows to celebrate Paris's intervention.

"We thank France for coming to our aid," said resident Mariam Sidibe. "We hope it continues till the north is free."

Let’s see how this year shapes up.



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