Mired in Mali: France and the Regional Quicksand

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The war in Mali has entered a complex and new dimension as the French and their regional allies continue their operations against the radical Islamist insurgents in the north of the country. The unconfirmed killing of two Al-Qaeda leaders in Northern Mali last week, which was announced by the Chadian army supporting French operations in the region, has escalated fears that the French and their allies may be sinking slowly into the regional quicksand.

On Saturday March 2, the Chadian army said its troops had killed Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a radical Islamist leader from the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), who was behind the attack on the Amenas gas plant in Algeria in January in which at least 37 hostages were killed. A day earlier, Chad also said it had killed another leader linked to Al Qaeda, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid. The deaths of the two men- who were among the most feared and best known warlords in North Africa- have not been confirmed by the French Defense Ministry or other sources. If confirmed, the death of Belmokhtar, once described as the “uncatchable”, and that of Abou Zeid, will signal an escalation in the Malian conflict and an increase in its ethnic, tribal and regional complexity.

France, which has confirmed itself the death of a third French soldier in Mali on Sunday March 3, is already admitting to fighting a very fanatical adversary. Many of the AQIM fighters know the Sahara desert terrain well and some have operated there as smugglers for decades, including Belmokhtar himself who was nicknamed “Mr. Marlboro” for his cigarette smuggling operations in the Sahel region. In the latest fierce fighting, about 1200 French, 800 Chadian and a number of Malian troops are fighting fierce battles from cave to cave against Islamist fighters in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountain range near the Algerian border in northeastern Mali. This is the region where the Chadian army said Belmokhtar and Abou Zeid were killed last week. As a result, the French Foreign Ministry announced last week that it will not withdraw its 4000 strong force from Mali “in haste” and confirmed that the withdrawal of its troops, scheduled for this month, is dependant on the military situation on the ground.

In addition to the loss of its three soldiers so far, France has already spent more than 100 million Euros (131 million US Dollars) on fighting in Mali over the past six weeks and is now preparing itself for the prospect of another protracted and costly intervention. It had hoped to rally African troops to take over stabilization and peacekeeping efforts when its troops leave but is now finding African military support waning after 24 Chadian special unit soldiers were killed in battles in the Ifoghas mountain region last week.

The fate of the French hostages

What is perhaps most worrying for the French, however, is the effect the killing of Belmokhtar and Abou Zeid may have on the fate of French hostages in the hands of AQIM if the deaths of these two AQIM leaders were confirmed. AQIM, which operates in the border regions of Algeria, Mali, Niger and Mauritania, currently holds four French citizens kidnapped in September 2010 from the town of Arlit in Niger's northern uranium mining zone as well as two other French hostages captured in the Sahel region. AQIM had threatened once to kill these hostages last September in a warning against planned French intervention in the country. Lessons learned from Al-Qaeda modus operandi in other countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, indicate that when Al-Qaeda leaders are killed, revenge is sought either in killing or the taking of more hostages from the parties involved. This does not bode well for the French, despite the fact that Chad had claimed responsibility for the killing of the AQIM leaders.

The final twist, which would make this war in Mali even more complex for France and its allies than evident so far, is not to do with the fate of French hostages though that will certainly attract Western attention and French anger if their lives were threatened as a result of the latest escalation. What would make France’s war and that of its allies more mired in the Sahara quicksand is the possible rise of inter-border ethnic tensions between Arab and Tuareg tribes involved in the conflict as well as tension between Arabs in Northern Mali and the Malian army who was accused of deliberately targeting and killing members of Arab tribes. This is causing embarrassment for the Algerians as well, who are linked by tribal marriages and relations to the Mali Arabs since the Algerian war of Liberation in the 1950’s, and were not keen for the French military intervention in Mali in the first place.

French officials may be fervently hoping that their troops are able to stay in control till Malian national elections are held in July this year. These elections may give the unstable Malian government more legitimacy and help bring in more much needed Western humanitarian and logistic support. If military developments were to deteriorate and the hostages’ situation became worse thus causing the French more embarrassment and causalities, then France may be have to change its strategy in order to pull out unmired from the Sahara quicksand.