Since then, Operation Serval has progressively escalated in the African Sahel as France, Algeria, and the United States prepare to widen their range of options in Mali. New plans reportedly include a further 2,500 French troops readying for deployment.
The effort currently underway in Mali is designed to clear territory in advance of ground operations, with troops from neighbouring African nations expected to arrive in a few weeks.
A 3,500-strong contingent of African Union and West African troops are due to bolster Malian troops with French, British, and U.S. forces conducting airstrikes and ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) missions in Northern Mali.
However, differing motivations for intervention in Mali, especially among the larger international players, have made starting this campaign a challenge.
On January 11, French President Francois Hollande assured Reuters he would support a recent Malian request for military assistance to counter an offensive by Islamist rebels. France's military operations will adhere to U.N. Security Council resolutions, Hollande said, adding that the Islamist advance threatens Mali's existence.
After significant militant gains over the late December-early January period, Western intervention now reportedly also includes Special Forces troops assisting Malian units in the Mopti region.
Understandably, small elite teams do not constitute a full Western intervention. But in the wake of the U.S. consulate deaths in Libya last year, Western countries have steadily increased their ISR capabilities in Mali as well as facilitating logistics and training for the barely-functioning Malian military.
There are some constraints. Expanding ground operations into northern Mali prematurely without the appropriate softening measures from Western aircraft could risk scattering the jihadist groups. And ensuring interoperability between ECOWAS and Malian troops will take weeks to months.
The French intervention is likely to succeed but questions are being raised over the resolve of the international community and the indecisive actions of the United Nations in managing key security threats.
Mali is not a simple battlefield to fight in. Climatically changeable, sparsely populated, and with ambiguous borders, the country has attracted jihadists from all over the Muslim world during the past year.
Although the dire security situation is a slow-motion implosion, what happened in Mali to attract so many French troops is fairly straightforward.
Following the conclusion of the 2011 Libyan revolts, nomadic Tuareg fighters harking from Mali took advantage of the chaotic aftermath to seize significant quantities of heavy weaponry from abandoned Libyan military stockpiles.
Upon returning home to Mali, Tuareg fighters quickly launched an impromptu militant campaign of their own against the Malian government. They quickly controlled a large region in the north of Mali’s hourglass-shaped country.
Ever the opportunists, the Algerian-based Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) spotted an opportunity to set up their own base of operations in northern Mali.
AQIM developed a proxy group named Ansar Dine to impose Sharia law on the Tuareg locals, and wage a militant campaign against Bamako for greater control over the country. The Tuareg militant fighters were apparently duped into working with the AQIM proxies initially, but have since rejected the Islamist group and are now offering assistance to French forces.
Because of the wet environment, the government in Bamako was unable to quickly send troops to quell the fighting. Once the first uprisings in the north began, and it became clear nothing could be done, a military coup was sparked toppling the regime.
Western countries are alarmed that Mali could become a staging ground for transnational jihadists and the current offensive is designed to counter the rebels. However, serious political obstacles stand in the way. The most significant of which is disagreement between France, Algeria, and the U.S. on what the operations are supposed to achieve.
France’s motives revolve around stemming a potential militant spillover into neighbouring Niger that may impact French-owned uranium mines. Mali was once a colony of France and Paris still holds strong political levers in the country and throughout the Sahel. So a strong, Paris-friendly government in Bamako is the top priority for France, and it will likely conduct only the necessary operations in northern Mali to ensure this.
Algeria is concerned about AQIM gaining a staging ground in a sparsely-populated, ungovernable region of Africa. As North Africa’s most stable country, Algeria’s competent internal security force successfully held a jackboot on AQIM’s throat for years. Algiers worries its strong regional clout may be undermined if it is dragged into a conflict in Mali to upset AQIM’s advances.
Finally, the U.S. continues to follow the playbook of chasing terrorists to the ends of the earth. After the disastrous consulate deaths in Benghazi late last year, gathered intelligence pointed to elements of AQIM emanating from northern Mali as the likely culprits. Washington’s motives for intervention are to deny AQIM sanctuary from which they could potentially plan and conduct more strikes against Western targets. Building up the government in Bamako is only a secondary priority for Washington.
These countries are in the best positions to intervene in Mali. The problem is none of these governments see mutually agreed reasons for intervention. The delay in significant assistance to Mali is largely a result of this.
Ansar Dine and AQIM now control a sizeable portion of northern Mali. Their assault on Konna in central Mali on January 7 marks the current zenith of their historical progress, representing a mere 300 kilometres from Bamako itself.
Ensuring control over central Mali is the primary objective for Operation Serval, although a push north to more effectively uproot AQIM is expected.
Shifting the tide against AQIM troops in northern Mali will be a long-term goal. France has clearly taken the lead in the operation but will be hesitant to commit troops into a push north, relying on African forces instead.