The first phase of France’s operation in Mali hasn’t even ended, but it already offers lessons for the future as U.S. and European militaries pare back military spending.
First, by acting swiftly and decisively, France — with help from allies — kept Mali from becoming an al-Qaida safe haven and prompted one-time Islamist and Tuareg allies to turn on the terror group.
Second, highly trained, well-armed special operators, light infantry and paratroopers backed by precision airpower are valuable in any intervention operation.
Third, France considered the cultural complexities of the mission before acting. Recognizing its colonial legacy, French President François Hollande stressed France’s return to Mali was temporary to oust the same brand of brutality al-Qaida and its Taliban ally imposed on Afghanistan. By coming to Mali as liberators, French forces gained critical intelligence from locals.
Fourth, even as France led military operations it was organizing follow-on forces for the most difficult phase of the campaign: securing Mali’s future. Paris astutely asked Arabic-speaking Muslim troops from Chad to provide the forces for the Arab Muslim north of the country, while relying on black African countries for troops bound for southern Mali, which is predominantly black. Soldiers will return to France starting in March, but French special operations forces will continue to hunt insurgents that scattered into the country’s northern mountains. Some 500 troops from Europe will train Malian forces.
Fifth, airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, transport and aerial refueling are critical and on all three, France’s allies provided valuable support. Radar planes able to track individuals and vehicles across vast areas are now a top priority, but only America and Britain have them. Both countries have committed their planes to Afghanistan, but London redirected one of its five ASTOR jets for Mali operations. Washington must follow suit with its even more capable Joint STARS planes.
To be sure, this operation also highlighted several deficiencies, among them shortfalls in French strategic lift and ISR assets. And for some, it marked a key failure of the 2005 U.S. strategy to increase its engagement in Africa to build regional stability.
Military-to-military engagements build valuable trust and partner capacity, but only if you train the right people. Against French advice, the U.S. military trained the Tuareg captain who later staged a coup that destablized Mali, creating an opportunity that insurgents seized.
While the operation demonstrated France’s ground and air capabilities, it also illustrated ISR deficiencies, specifically that its Harfang UAV is inadequate. Paris would like to buy the American Reaper system, which can track and attack targets. Washington has sold Reapers to Britain and Italy and should do the same for France, a close ally in the fight against global terrorism.
Finally, France has long advocated greater pooling and sharing of military capabilities among European nations, so that together they can field greater capability at less cost, a central element of NATO’s Smart Defense agenda that lacks traction. Like Libya, Mali illustrated the benefits and drawbacks of the approach. Unfortunately, this time few allies opted to show up, prompting some in Paris to argue against further cuts to preserve national capabilities to reduce reliance on friends who might not help. All eyes are now on the white paper the Hollande government is preparing that will map the future of French defense for the coming years.
To be clear, the hard part of the Mali mission is yet to come. France managed to keep the country from falling completely to insurgents and scattered al-Qaida fighters, who will be difficult to find and capture. Stabilizing the country politically and economically will require prolonged international support and manpower. Internal rifts, specifically the Tuareg’s long-running drive for autonomy, will have to be addressed.
But one thing is clear. While nations that have been fighting in Afghanistan want to bring their troops home and take a well-earned break, the real world won’t cooperate.
Security depends on having the will, the capabilities, the allies and the thoughtful planning to intervene effectively and quickly whenever necessary.