Netherlands Mulls Sending Commandos, Helicopters to Mali

A Dutch Marine deployed to Koukou, Chad, June 12, 2008
A Dutch Marine deployed to Koukou, Chad, June 12, 2008 (Ministerie van Defensie)

The Dutch government is expected to announce next week that it will send up to four hundred soldiers, including elite commandos, as well as Apache attack helicopters to Mali following an appeal for more United Nations peacekeepers.

The body’s special representative to Mali, former Dutch international development minister Bert Koenders, told the Security Council last week that the international force in the West African country needed helicopters and more troops as it builds up to replace the French army that intervened there early this year to halt an Islamist takeover. Koenders described recent attacks in the north of the country as a “wake-up call.”

Timbuktu and other towns in the north, where Islamists, in alliance with local Tuareg secessionists, carved out an independent state last year, have been rocked by previously unheard of suicide bombings.

The national army has struggled to suppress the violence. The head of the European Union’s training mission of Malian soldiers told France’s Le Monde newspaper in April, “They’re managing misery.” He complained of corruption, nepotism and theft in the armed forces and urged foreign powers to expand their support.

The international force is supposed to reach more than 12,000 soldiers and police but since the withdrawal of Chadian and Nigerian troops, it is composed of less than half that number.

Koenders’s ruling Labor Party has been eager to join the effort. “Civilians in Mali are suffering,” party chairman Hans Spekman told a television program on Sunday. “Ordinary people are the victims there.”

Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s liberals, however, preferred a NATO operation, haunted by the experience in Bosnia’s Srebrenica in 1995 when Dutch peacekeepers, under a United Nations mandate, were unable to stop Serbian troops from massacring more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys. The Netherlands’ supreme court ruled in September that the country can be held legally accountable for its failure to protect civilians in Srebrenica.

France intervened in Mali when insurgents appeared to advance on the capital city of Bamako. They were forced out of the cities and major towns in the central and northern parts of the country by airstrikes and sought refuge in the deserts and mountains of the far north, near the border with Algeria.

The composition of the remaining rebel alliance has shifted. Mainstream Tuareg secessionists, who seek a state of their own in the north of the former French colony, joined the counterinsurgency against radical Islamists who hijacked their uprising last year. The latter count among their ranks members of Al Qaeda’s North Africa wing, Tuareg radicals and fighters that were displaced by Algerian counterterrorism operations as well as Arab and Western powers’ 2011 intervention in Libya’s civil war — to which the Dutch contributed four F-16 fighter jets, a refueling plane and the minehunter Haarlem.

France Seeks Tuareg Inclusion to Malian Government’s Chagrin

Presidents François Hollande of France and Dioncounda Traoré of Mali meet in Paris, May 17, 2013
Presidents François Hollande of France and Dioncounda Traoré of Mali meet in Paris, May 17, 2013 (Elysée)

A standoff over how to restore government control in Mali’s northeast has highlighted discord between the African country and its former colonizer. France, which intervened in Mali earlier this year to help suppress an Islamist insurgency there, seeks a political rather than a military solution to reintegrating the Saharan desert town of Kidal, Tuareg separatists’ last stronghold.

Mali’s army has moved troops toward Kidal but France, which has its own forces camped outside, is seen as blocking their advance. It is urging Mali’s government to address the Tuaregs’ demands for increased autonomy instead and fears ethnic bloodshed if the African soldiers move into Kidal.

Much of Mali’s north fell into the hands of radical Muslim and Tuareg fighters last year, including members of Al Qaeda’s North African wing and the local group Ansar Dine, who declared an independent state in the area and imposed strict Islamic law. They had been able to seize on Arab and Western powers’ intervention in Libya a year earlier which caused the displacement of Tuareg mercenaries previously employed by the regime in Tripoli as well as Algerian counterterrorism offensives in recent years that pushed Muslim extremists south.

The Atlantic Sentinel‘s Miguel Nunes Silva predicted in October of last year that as a consequence of its intervention in Libya, where it enlisted the help of its NATO allies to topple longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi, France would be “confronted with the need to support the Tuareg against Ansar Dine and thus further cement the secession of Azawad,” as the north of Mali is known locally. Only by drawing the majority of Tuaregs, who comprise 10 percent of Mali’s population, to its side can France prevent the Islamists from resurging in an area that is comparable in size to France itself.

France’s intervention in Mali, which started with airstrikes in January, managed to wean the mainstream Tuareg secessionist movement off the hardliners. It joined the French-Malian effort to push the Islamists out and, observed Adam Garfinkle at The American Interest in February, “put itself forward as a useful proxy of France in the hope that, when the war is over, it will become the main political force in the Tuareg areas of Mali.”

Elections due in July will likely boost the Tuareg movement’s legitimacy whereas the central government in Bamako, which continues to refer to the secessionists as “terrorists,” would, it seems, rather finish the job and flush them out of the only town where they hold power: Kidal. France cannot allow this when it would likely radicalize the Tuareg separatist struggle again and give the Islamists an opportunity to return.

Despite Interventions, Libyan, Malian Islamist Threat Rising

Soldiers from neighboring West African countries deployed to Mali, January 29
Soldiers from neighboring West African countries deployed to Mali, January 29 (EMA/Ministère de la Défense)

Despite Western military interventions in both African countries’ civil wars, the Islamist threat in Libya and Mali is rising, Britain’s The Guardian newspaper reported on Sunday.

According to Afua Hirsch, the paper’s West Africa correspondent, “The security problems in northern Mali, where militants have lost their grip on towns but large weapons caches are believed to be hidden in the desert, have dampened the jubilant spirit that arose when French forces swept into the region in January.”

Timbuktu and other towns in the north of the country, where Islamists, in alliance with local Tuareg secessionists, carved out an independent state last year, are regularly rocked by suicide bombings, “previously unheard of in the country.”

The national army is struggling to suppress the violence. The head of the European Union’s training mission of Malian soldiers told France’s Le Monde newspaper last week, “They’re managing misery.” He complained of corruption, nepotism and theft in the armed forces and urged foreign powers to expand their support.

France intervened in its former colony earlier this year when insurgents appeared to advance on the capital city of Bamako. They were forced out of the cities and major towns in the central and northern parts of the country by airstrikes and sought refuge in the deserts and mountains of the far north, near the border with Algeria. France later deployed some 4,000 troops to the country while a West African peacekeeping force, supposed to be twice the French deployment in size, is mobilizing to prevent the rebels from resurging.

“Many accuse the Tuaregs,” whose independence struggle was hijacked by more radical factions, including Al Qaeda’s North Africa wing, last year, “of continuing to wage armed conflict,” writes Hirsch.

Some mainstream Tuareg secessionists have joined the counterinsurgency effort against the Islamists but Ansar Dine, an extremist faction, hasn’t given up the fight. Nor have the Muslim fanatics. Unlike the Tuareg, they have less interest in the region and can easily cross the border to continue their jihad from neighboring Algeria, Mauritania or Niger.

Hirsch and Chris Stephen write in the same newspaper that Libya, where Arab and Western countries intervened in 2011 to help topple Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, is another destination for these militants.

“There are established links between groups in both Mali and Libya,” one Western diplomat told The Guardian. “There is an anxiety among the political class here that Mali is blowing back on them.”

That anxiety was heightened last week when a car bomb exploded outside the French embassy in Tripoli, wounding two French guards as well as a local student. The American diplomatic mission in the eastern city of Benghazi was stormed and set ablaze by gunmen last September. Four were killed at the time, including the United States’ ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens. Dozens more were killed in January when Islamists linked to Al Qaeda attacked a gas plant in Algeria’s In Amenas, near the Libyan border.

Foreign intervention in Libya originally pushed Tuareg soldiers who had been employed by Gaddafi out while Algerian counterterrorism operations in recent years have driven religious fanatics into countries such as Mali.

The continued movement of insurgents across the Maghreb’s porous borders suggests a regionwide insurgency that often weak governments there, recovering from civil war, hamstrung by internal political divisions or both, seem unable to contain.

France Extends Mali Mission, Army Training Underfunded

Soldiers from Niger join Malian army forces to battle an Islamist insurgency in their country, January 30
Soldiers from Niger join Malian army forces to battle an Islamist insurgency in their country, January 30 (EMA/Ministère de la Défense)

France’s parliament on Monday voted to extend its military mission in West African Mali despite complaints from one of its officers that the effort is underfunded.

“They’re managing misery,” Bruno Heluin, who runs the European Union’s training of Malian soldiers, told Le Monde newspaper. He complained of corruption, nepotism and theft in the army and accused foreign powers of failing to honor their promises of aid.

The international community said, “We absolutely need to rebuild the Malian army.” But not one euro cent has been given to the Malian army.

France is slowly pulling its soldiers out of the country, currently numbering some 4,000, after it intervened in January to help Malian forces drive back an offensive by Islamist militants who had declared an independent state in the north. French troops and fighter jets, supported by American and European allies, forced the insurgents to abandon their strongholds and seek refuge in the desert. Central government control was nominally restored.

President François Hollande announced late last month that French troop levels will be reduced to 1,000 by year’s end. His government is counting on a West African peacekeeping force, to be composed of up to 8,000 soldiers from neighboring countries, mainly Chad and Nigeria, to take over to prevent the rebels from resurging in a territory that is comparable in size to France itself.

However, the West Africans have struggled to organize their military effort. They will likely need more support from France and other Western nations to provide airlifts, ammunition, communications equipment and field hospitals to be able to mount an effective force for a prolonged period of time.

Meanwhile, the composition of the remaining rebel alliance has shifted. Mainstream Tuareg secessionists, who seek a state of their own in the north of Mali, have joined the counterinsurgency against radical Islamists who hijacked their uprising last year. The latter count among their ranks members of Al Qaeda’s North Africa wing, Tuareg radicals and fighters that were displaced by Algerian counterterrorism operations and Arab and Western powers’ intervention in Libya’s civil war.

Some of the Tuareg fighters are former army troops who were armed and trained by the United States, Heluin told Le Monde.

America provided logistical support for France’s intervention in its former colony after an official had complained that it was “dragging its feet” on a request for air tankers to help fuel French fighter jets.

France Won’t Pull Troops Out of Mali Before Year’s End

A French military transport aircraft arrives at Port-Bouët, Côte d'Ivoire, February 6
A French military transport aircraft arrives at Port-Bouët, Côte d’Ivoire, February 6 (EMA/Ministère de la Défense)

President François Hollande said on Friday that French forces in Mali will be drawn down to 1,000 by the end of the year. 4,000 French troops are currently deployed in the West African country to suppress an Islamist insurgency there.

In a television interview, the French leader said troop levels will be cut in half by July when presidential and parliamentary elections are scheduled to take place in Mali. He insisted that there was no preference for any candidate in Paris. “The days when France chose Africa’s heads of state for it are over.”

Hollande previously insisted that his soldiers would stay in Mali until sovereignty was restored. “There is still a whole part of the north that remains unconquered,” he said during a visit in February. Militants have sought refuge there since they were driven out of the cities and major towns in the center part of the country by French and Malian forces early this year.

France launched airstrikes against Islamic militants in its former colony in early January when they appeared to advance on the capital city Bamako. It followed up with ground deployments and expected a West African peacekeeping force, to be composed of up to 8,000 soldiers from neighboring countries, mainly Chad and Nigeria, to take over to prevent the rebels from resurging.

However, the West Africans have struggled to organize their military operation. They will likely need more support from France and other Western nations to provide airlifts, ammunition, communications equipment and field hospitals to be able to mount an effective force for a prolonged period of time.

Meanwhile, the composition of the rebel alliance has shifted. Mainstream Tuareg secessionists, who seek a state of their own in the north of Mali, have joined the counterinsurgency against radical Islamists who hijacked their uprising last year. They count among their ranks members of Al Qaeda’s North Africa wing, the Tuareg group Ansar Dine and fighters that were displaced by Algerian counterterrorism operations and Arab and Western powers’ intervention in Libya’s civil war.

The Islamists seem less concerned about fighting for an independent state in the north of Mali, a region that is also known as Azawad, than controlling territory to impose sharia law. They can easily cross the border and continue their jihad from neighboring Algeria, Mauritania or Niger. The Tuaregs, while nomadic, are bound to the land. A long-term political settlement will likely require increased autonomy for this Berber people.

Mali’s interim president Dioncounda Traoré, who came to power after a brief military coup in March of last year and has not announced an intention to stand for election in three months’ time, pledged in February, “Together we will hunt the terrorists down to their last hiding place.” His army wasn’t particularly discriminating in fighting Tuareg separatists and proper terrorists while restoring government control in Azawad, however. If Mali’s army seeks to drive the Tuaregs out as well, it might compel France to stay even longer.

Defense Chief: France to Leave Mali Once Security Restored

French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian addresses Socialist Party members in Dijon, France, September 19, 2012
French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian addresses Socialist Party members in Dijon, France, September 19, 2012 (PS/Mathieu Delmestre)

France won’t hand over its mission in Mali until security is restored, defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told his troops during a surprise visit to the north of the African country where they are battling an Islamist insurgency with local and neighboring armed forces.

Le Drian earlier predicted that France’s involvement in Mali’s counterinsurgency would last no more than “a matter of weeks” while foreign minister Laurent Fabius said in late January that French troops would pull out “quickly” after the rebels had been driven out of the cities and major towns. Soldiers from other West African countries are supposed to take over from the French and help the Malian army in preventing the Islamists from resurging.

On Thursday, the French defense chief argued, “We are in the last phase, the most decisive phase” of the operation.

This phase entails some very violent combat. When the liberation of the whole country is complete, then we will hand over responsibility to African forces.

President François Hollande said on Wednesday that he would draw down French troops levels in Mali starting in April, a month later than previously forecast. “There is still a whole part of the north that remains unconquered,” the president said during his visit to Mali last month. “We have not yet finished our mission. But we do not foresee staying indefinitely.”

Some 4,000 French troops are deployed to Mali. Three have died since the country launched airstrikes against insurgents in its former colony in early January when they appeared to advance on the capital city Bamako. It followed up with ground deployments while troops from neighboring countries, including Chad and Nigeria, poured in to assist in the effort.

However, the West Africans have struggled to organize their military operation. They will likely need more support from France and other Western nations to provide airlifts, ammunition, communications equipment and field hospitals to be able to mount an effective force for a prolonged period of time.

France Stays Longer in Mali, Tuareg Join Fight

A French air force pilot in Bamako, Mali, February 9
A French air force pilot in Bamako, Mali, February 9 (EMA/Ministère de la Défense)

France troops will likely remain in Mali for several more months to support local and neighboring armies in suppressing an Islamist insurgency in the north of the African country that was driven into the countryside last month by its military intervention.

One French diplomat told the Associated Press this week that the nation’s military presence is expected to remain for at least six months. Two other officials said that France’s participation in the counterinsurgency will last at least until July when it hopes Mali can hold elections, well beyond the March deadline that was originally set in Paris.

During his visit to Mali early last month, President François Hollande promised that his forces would stay in Mali until sovereignty was restored. “There is still a whole part of the north that remains unconquered,” he said after French and Malian soldiers had pushed the rebels out of the major cities and towns of the region. “We have not yet finished our mission. But we do not foresee staying indefinitely.”

Some 4,000 French troops are deployed to Mali. The country launched airstrikes against insurgents in its former colony in early January when they appeared to advance on the capital city Bamako. It followed up with ground deployments and expected a West African peacekeeping force, to be composed of up to 8,000 soldiers from neighboring countries, mainly Chad and Nigeria, to take over to prevent the Islamists from resurging.

However, the West Africans have struggled to organize their military operation. They will likely need more support from France and other Western nations to provide airlifts, ammunition, communications equipment and field hospitals to be able to mount an effective force for a prolonged period of time.

The rebels’ defeats appeared to split their ranks when more mainstream Tuareg secessionist groups joined the French-Malian effort to push the hardline Islamists out. The latter include the Tuareg movement Ansar Dine as well as members of Al Qaeda’s North African wing and affiliated extremists. Driven out of their urban strongholds, they seem to press on in the inhospitable terrain of northern Mali that is comparable in size of France itself.

The significance of this development should not be understated, writes Adam Garfinkle at The American Interest.

Until the 2011 war in Libya, when France and other Western powers intervened to help the opposition there topple the dictatorship of Muammar al-Gaddafi and inadvertently caused fighters and weapons to flood into Mali, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), as the north of the country is also known, “was the Tuareg rebel organization putting pressure on Bamako over many, many years,” according to Garfinkle. Their cause was hijacked by more radical elements last year but now those extremists have been marginalized, the movement “has put itself forward as a useful proxy of France in the hope that, when the war is over, it will become the main political force in the Tuareg areas of Mali.”

It is not a bad bet. The French, having hastily announced very expansive war aims, soon found themselves in a nasty fix: namely, without the means to achieve their ends. They certainly did not wish to police all of northern Mali themselves from now until eternity and the more realistic among French civilian and military decisionmakers had to understand fairly quickly that no African Union force could do the job either. And there stood the MNLA, Tuaregs prepared to do a deal.

Miguel Nunes Silva predicted this would happen in an article for the Atlantic Sentinel in October of last year.

By enlisting the support of NATO allies, notably the United Kingdom and the United States, France was able to “rid Françafrique of a dangerous regional influence.”

Gaddafi’s Libya had for years sponsored armed groups and political elites across French-speaking Africa and with him gone, so would his influence. Libyan involvement in Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Sudan was eliminated in one swoop.

The aftershocks were unpredictable “and Mali was certainly one of them.” The Tuareg had long claimed a homeland of their own and saw an opportunity to make use of the changed balance of power to press their case. But the groups that bolstered their effort had different aims. They sought to carve out an Islamist state in Mali.

“France and the West are now confronted with the need to support the Tuareg against Ansar Dine and thus further cement the secession of Azawad,” wrote Silva at the time, an imperative that now seems to bear out.

A long-term political settlement of Mali’s unrest will likely require a higher degree of autonomy for the Tuareg if not de facto independence. Which serves France’s interests as long as such a polity isn’t controlled by Islamists nor destabilizes the rest of Mali when the threat of Azawad’s secession did spark a military coup in Bamako almost exactly a year ago.