After Recent French Victories in Mali the Conflict Will Change, Not End

French troops have entered the town of Kidal in northern Mali, the last stronghold of Islamic militants in the region. It should come as no surprise that Malian forces with French support have been able to dislodge Islamic militants from most of the areas that they captured since the beginning of the conflict. However, while the militants have been pushed back their retreat is not a sign that the conflict in Mali is over, only that it is about to change.

It is impossible for the Islamic militants that have been wreaking havoc in northern Mali to compete with the highly trained and technologically superior French military that has been supporting Malian forces. Yet, despite their technological and military handicap the militants do have a few advantages.

One of the most notable advantages that the militants can exploit is their use of the terrain. Even before the French intervention in Mali began militants were using bulldozers to improve upon the natural defenses already provided by caves in the desert.  An article from the AP last month highlighted the size of some of the caves:

They have used the bulldozers, earth movers and Caterpillar machines left behind by fleeing construction crews to dig what residents and local officials describe as an elaborate network of tunnels, trenches, shafts and ramparts. In just one case, inside a cave large enough to drive trucks into, they have stored up to 100 drums of gasoline, guaranteeing their fuel supply in the face of a foreign intervention, according to experts.

Removing militants from these caves would be a bloody and time-consuming task.

Another advantage that the militants have over their opponents is that they can hide themselves in local populations and engage in guerilla warfare, thereby overcoming the superior technology and firepower of their enemies. Stratfor, a global intelligence company, recently released an article that highlighted the sort of tactics we should expect from militants in Mali: 

It is very likely that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its jihadist rebels in Mali will soon be forced to abandon their objective of comprehensive territorial control as well as its conventional warfare strategy. As the French and other intervention forces drive back the jihadists and consolidate security in central Mali, and then gradually push into northern Mali to deny that region as a sanctuary for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the jihadists will have an opportunity to use their superior knowledge of the terrain, local indigenous militia relationships, and guerrilla tactics to inflict casualties on their enemies. Their fighting conduct will transition to a more dispersed insurgency that relies on ambushes, improvised explosive devices, and small-scale hit-and-run attacks.

This is the sort of guerilla fighting conventional militaries are going to have to get used to if governments continue to execute or support interventions against terrorist groups. How well Malian government forces react to the changing nature of the conflict in Mali remains to be seen. The French might yet avoid a guerilla war if French troops manage to withdraw quickly, as was recently suggested by France’s foreign minister. 

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  • Cytotoxic||

    1) 'Pushing back' militants is stupid. They must die or they will just be back.

    2) Unless France wants its own quagmire, they should leave and and arm the local populaces of Gao, Kidal, and Timbuktu. Heavily arm them. The locals hated the Islamic occupiers and the Malian army obviously can't be trusted to hold these towns. So yeah there's my strategy.

  • Randian||

    'Pushing back' militants is stupid. They must die or they will just be back.

    Unless, of course, in the pursuit of killing them you manage to incur collateral damage and create two militants for every one you kill.

    I think I've heard of that once or twice before.

  • $park¥||

    You must be thinking of blowback. Sorry, doesn't exist.

  • Hyperion||

    You must be thinking of blowback

    Yes, it's conspiracy theory from that kooky old Ron Paul.

    It's a proven fact that inadvertently killing peoples family members... err, I mean, collateral damage, only makes people love you, because they understand it's for their own good.

  • $park¥||

    they understand it's for their own good.

    Exactly. If they didn't want to take that risk then they wouldn't be living near terrorists.

  • Hyperion||

    If they didn't want to take the risk, they would have been born Murikan! Murika, Fuck Yeah!

  • ThatSkepticGuy||

    That only happens when the killing is being done by ze capitaleest peegs.

  • Cytotoxic||

    I think I've heard of that once or twice before.

    And you have no examples.

  • Tman||

    Libya, Mali, Afghanistan?

    WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE?? WE HAVE SEVERAL DEAD AMERICANS HERE. WHO CARES IF IT'S ISLAMIC JIHADISTS JUST WALKING AROUND DECIDING WE NEED TO SHOOT SOME AMERICANS, OR JIHADIST ISLAMICS WHO WANT TO SHOOT AMERICANS.

    WE NEED TO GO SHOOT SOMEONE.

    NOW.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    "Recent French *what*?"

    "Victories."

    "We're French, we don't have a word for it!"

  • ||

    the highly trained and technologically superior French military

    Don't see that said everyday.

  • Hugh Akston||

    Well when al Qaeda does start to hide among the local population, France can just switch to using drones, which have the amazing ability to blow terrorists into tiny pieces without any effect whatsoever on innocents.

  • LTC(ret) John||

    Nah, they already have the "dive bomb the entire village" manuals left over from Algeria!

  • T||

    Removing militants from these caves would be a bloody and time-consuming task.

    Versus

    In just one case, inside a cave large enough to drive trucks into, they have stored up to 100 drums of gasoline,

    I understand how thermobaric bombs work. I also understand what inciendiary munitions do in enclosed spaces. Hiding in a cave with large quantities of flammable liquids is a recipe for failure. It'll be bloody, all right.

    Well, more burnt, actually.

  • LTC(ret) John||

    Yeah, the elusive guerrilla decides to act the Japanese in 1943-1945 and hole up in caves. Um, that just fixes them in place to be killed.

    Of course the very next point (citing Stratfor for God's sake?!) is that the elusive guerrilla will simply melt way, use mobility and concealment in the populace to remain gamboling across the Sahel.

    Wait, which one is it?

    If I were a betting man, I go with the second one, first option is merely picking your grave site.

  • Paul.||

    wrecking havoc

    Say what?

  • $park¥||

    reeking havoc?

  • Hyperion||

    Inevitably, the French will run home with tails between their legs, and Murika will be left to sacrifice our youngsters, for the next 10 years, for nothing, in the desert.

    Yes, I think we have been here before. Have we learned anything? Nope.

  • T||

    At least this time, it's a dry heat.

  • LTC(ret) John||

    That makes all the difference when it is 122 degrees out, and you are in 75lbs of armor, kit, weapons, radios and such.

    GAH!

  • Gladstone||

    Well the difference with 'Nam was that it was BOOOOOSH NIXON! Oh Wait...

  • LTC(ret) John||

    This should be a classic SF mission - arm villagers, train villagers, LEAVE.

    I suspect none of the three will happen at all.

  • $park¥||

    Why not, that worked well in Afghanistan.

  • LTC(ret) John||

    Yeah, there we got to one and a half of the three... bleah.

  • Cytotoxic||

    And that's what I want to do.

  • tarran||

    Where are the guerilla's getting their supplies? Where are their safe havens?

    In Aghanistan and Iraq the fighters have access to safe areas and to munitions (either from the stocks of the Iraqi regime, or smuggled from Pakistan).

    I guess the caves are sort of a safe haven, but where is the source for the guerilla supply lines?

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