French-led strikes in Mali can't exclude SAS help

The NZSAS crest
NZSAS troops are well trained for desert warfare
NZSAS Victoria Cross winner Corporal Willie Apiata
Training is tough for NZSAS troops

COMMENT

In an exclusive revelation earlier this week, NBR ONLINE told how an international effort to oust jihadists from Mali could soon include New Zealand special forces.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Murray McCully confirmed to NBR that during his bilateral talks with visiting British Foreign Secretary William Hague the security situation in the west African nation was discussed.

France is spearheading a long-awaited multinational intervention in Mali to stop an inexorable southern spread of jihadists.

According to the French Ministry of Defence, on the night of January 11 and 12 four Mirage 2000D fighter jets opened the first round of airstrikes in the central Mopti region of unstable country.

Operation Serval has since escalated in the African Sahel as France, Algeria, and the United States prepare to widen their range of options.

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.

The Mali bombing was designed to clear territory in advance of ground operations, with troops from neighbouring African nations expected to arrive in a few weeks.

A 3500-strong contingent of African Union and west African troops are due to bolster Malian troops, with French, British and US forces continuing to conduct airstrikes and ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) missions in northern Mali.

Challenging start

However, differing motivations for intervention, especially among the larger international players, have made starting the campaign a challenge.

After significant militant gains over late December to early January, Western intervention now reportedly also includes special forces troops assisting Malian units, and a force the NZSAS could potentially soon be joining them.

Small elite teams do not constitute a full western intervention. But in the wake of the US 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 nation's barely-functioning 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 full co-operation between ECOWAS and Malian troops will take weeks to months.

Mali is not a simple battlefield. Climatically changeable, sparsely populated and with ambiguous borders, it has attracted jihadists from throughout the Muslim world during the past year.

Western countries are alarmed Mali could become their staging ground. However, serious political obstacles stand in the way.

Mali was once a French colony and it still holds strong political and economic 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.

Jackboot on the throat

Algeria is north Africa’s most stable country and its internal security force successfully held a jackboot on the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) throat for years. Algiers worries its strong regional clout may be undermined if it is also dragged into a conflict in Mali to upset the group’s advances.

Washington’s motives for intervention are to deny AQIM a sanctuary from which it could potentially plan and conduct more strikes against Western targets. Strengthening the government in Bamako is only a secondary priority.

These countries are in the best position to intervene in Mali yet none see mutually agreed reasons for intervention. The delay in significant assistance is largely a result of this.

Fighters from Ansar Dine and AQIM have captured a sizeable portion of northern Mali. Ensuring control over the central area is the primary objective for the French-led Operation Serval, although a push north to more effectively uproot AQIM is expected.

Shifting the tide against AQIM troops in the north will be a long-term goal and the active operation is rapidly changing. France has clearly taken the lead but will be hesitant to commit large numbers of troops and hopes to rely on African forces instead.

Where New Zealand fits into this picture has yet to be determined.

Nathan Smith has a Bachelor of Communications in Journalism from Massey University and has studied international relations and conflict

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It is good to prevent evil.

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