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24 August 2012 | Feature Article

Insurgency in Northern Mali: Diplomacy or Counterinsurgency?

Insurgency in Northern Mali: Diplomacy or Counterinsurgency?

The recent take over of Northern Mali by National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and Al Qaeda franchise groups such as Ansar Dine and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) present difficult challenge to the civilian and military leadership in West Africa. There is no question that AQIM working closely with Ansar Dine would use their new trophy i.e. northern Mali not only as a supermarket for terrorism, but also to fuel kidnapping, drug trafficking and other contraband activities in the Sahel region and beyond. Therefore allowing them to use the region as a safe haven for terrorism and their criminal enterprise could worsen Mali's security problems and threaten the already shaky stability in neighbouring countries of Algeria, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Mauritania, and Niger. At the same time a counterinsurgency offensive on the part of ECOWAS to dislodge the MNLA rebels and Ansar Dine could trigger multiplier effects that ECOWAS might not be ready for. It is a serious dilemma that needs to be approached with extreme caution.

In formulating a proper response to the Malian problem, the leadership in West Africa should be guided by lessons in Somalia where efforts to root out Al Shabaab have remained not only elusive but to a larger extent have been counterproductive: spreading terrorism to Uganda and Kenya. More lessons could be drawn from the U.S. experience in fighting the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Paul Scharre, former officer of the U.S. 75th Ranger Regiment and the author of “A More Agile Pentagon” observes that the Afghan war was initially conducted with a “shock and awe” strategy using light and fast vehicles but that soon changed to the use of heavily armoured vehicles as Taliban and Al Qaeda began using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and roadside bombs to destroy convoys, road clearance vehicles and even the most potent of the coalition armoured vehicles with impressive results and with strategic consequences for the U.S. led coalition.

NATO, with its well trained 150,000 strong fighters and overwhelmingly superior capabilities, in addition to 305,000 Afghan Police and Armed Forces could not easily win the war against the battle-hardened, religiously and ideologically entrenched Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters. A change in both strategy and leadership on the part of U.S.-- including a 30,000 troop surge in 2009-2010-- did not overwhelmingly alter the battle environment in favour of the coalition forces. In the end U.S. began to engage the Taliban in dialogue for a negotiated political settlement. In June 2011, after ten years in Afghanistan and hundreds of billions of dollars spent in the war effort, President Barack Obama announced that he was bringing the U.S. troops home telling Americans “it is time to focus on nation building here at home”.

President Obama's announcement was made in spite of the obvious fact that Afghanistan is still unstable. While writing this piece report came in that the Taliban on Monday August 20, 2012 shot and damaged the parked plane of General Martin Dempsey, the top-most officer in the U.S. military. The attack came months after U.S. Defence Secretary Leone Panetta was made a target of a suicide attack in mid-March 2012 while on a visit to Camp Bastion in Afghanistan. It is highly uncertain what will happen in Afghanistan when the troops leave, however the U.S. willingness to engage the Taliban in dialogue for a political settlement is a major lesson that ECOWAS' political and military leaders could learn from. In other words ECOWAS' leaders should hesitate in launching counter offensive against the insurgents and give diplomacy a chance while keeping the military option on the table.

There are several reasons why ECOWAS must give diplomacy a chance. First AQIM, Ansar Dine and the MNLA rebels are not only unconventional fighting force that respect no rules of engagement but are also heavily armed and could put up stiff resistance to ECOWAS' counterinsurgency efforts. This means that combined with the difficult and hostile Sahara environment, it will be difficult to completely defeat them. The war could in fact drag on for years if not decades as pointed out by James Thomas Snyder author of “Counterinsurgency Vocabulary and Strategic Success” who notes that modern counterinsurgency warfare usually last between 12 and 15 years. Going by this it implies that ECOWAS will find it difficult to conduct and sustain a war that will last for 12 or 15 years especially given other serious threats in the sub region such as maritime piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, terrorism in Nigeria, fragile stability in Ivory Coast and narcotics trafficking that equally need human, financial and material resources to confront them.

Besides, counterinsurgency like any other war could be humanly costly. AQIM, Ansar Dine and MNLA may use guerrilla tactics; hide inside the populations living in the Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu thereby making it harder for ECOWAS' Forces to root them out. Attempt to attack the insurgents in the towns could lead to high civilian casualties which could be exploited by the insurgents to make the counterinsurgency unpopular among the population.

Additionally, a counterinsurgency could also worsen the already bad humanitarian situation in the north of the country. So far about 500,000 people are known to have fled their homes, additional 250,000 are internally displaced while a quarter of a million more live in refugee camps. More people could be forced to flee and the complicated food, water and health security situation could get worse.

Moreover, as it is common with many wars, the counterinsurgency environment can change very quickly with unpredictable outcomes. The insurgents could adapt to counterinsurgency offensive and even change the environment in their favour. They may decide to extend their activities to relatively stable areas in Mali and even to neighbouring countries. This is exactly what Al Shabaab did in Uganda on 11 July 2010 when they killed more than 85 people who had gathered to watch the FIFA World Cup that was underway in South Africa. Kenya has come under similar attacks from Al Shabaab and Boko Haram recently extended its activities to states in the middle belt of Nigeria.

More problematic is the financial situation in the ECOWAS region. ECOWAS countries, like the rest of the countries worldwide, are cash trapped due to the global financial and economic downturn. Governments in West Africa, United States and Europe are implementing austerity budget and struggling to stay afloat. Launching a war against the insurgents will not only require men but also money and military capabilities. Sending poorly equipped 3,500 fighting force to a region as big as France or U.S. state of Texas will be similar to repeating what the Malian government did when it sent soldiers with poor morale, leadership shortcomings and limited capabilities to confront the heavily armed insurgents, resulting in the lightening victory for the insurgents.

In other words undertaking a counterinsurgency that could be lengthy and costly, in a financially weak-region, and in a global economy that is still struggling to recover definitely needs deep thinking and a deeper reflection. General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff recently cautioned that the complexities of modern warfare particularly counterinsurgency require “leaders who do not think linearly, but who instead seek to understand the complexity of problems before seeking to solve them”. This means that politicians and military leaders in ECOWAS seeking solution for Mali should understand the situation before prescribing any solution.

Lieutenant General William B. Caldwell IV, commanding general of the NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan and Captain Nathan K. Finney in an article titled “Security, Capacity and Literacy” published in the journal 'Military Review' in 2011 opined that “conventional military weapons alone will not win” the war against AQIM, Ansar Dine and the Tuareg rebels. Similarly Tony Blair in a speech on January 12, 2007 observed that “Terrorism cannot be defeated by military means alone”.

This suggests that there are other weapons that in addition to dialogue could be used to defeat the insurgents. One such weapon is the use of intelligence. Intelligence could be beefed up in the region controlled by the insurgents. This could help ECOWAS to know the mind of the insurgents, their strategy, tactics, their movements, weapons and their operational capabilities. Intelligence could also help to identify the leadership of the insurgent for special attention and to counter their propaganda.

In his book “The War within”, Bob Woodward observed that the strategy of using accurate intelligence to conduct precision raids, targeting insurgent leaders helped to turn the tide in Iraq. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the threats he and other Al Qaeda leaders posed in Iraq were removed with the help of intelligence. Thus intelligence fusion and precision raiding focusing strongly on the leadership of insurgent could weaken the terror group's ability to mount effective response. Intelligence could also limit damage and bloodshed and unnecessary civilian casualties. Although Ansar Dine may quickly replace their captured or killed leaders, the new leaders may lack experience and skill which will affect their decision making and ability to wage a sustained war. Intelligence could also help to dismantle the drug trafficking, kidnapping and other criminal activities that serve as a key source of funding for the insurgents.

Also a strategy could be adopted to divide the front of the insurgents. There are two broad groups involved in the insurgency in northern Mali: Tuareg rebels and Ansar Dine. The Tuareg rebels are fighting for a homeland while the Ansar Dine is religiously fanatical organisation with links to AQIM that is seeking a haven to implement terror agenda in northern Mali. In other words the Tuareg rebels and Ansar Dine have different objectives when it comes ruling their captured territory. ECOWAS could exploit the deep differences the two groups have. For example ECOWAS could isolate Ansar Dine by talking to Tuareg rebels and working with them to implement the terms of the agreement they signed with the government in 2006. Energy then could be directed at AQIM and Ansar Dine.

Working with local leaders and improving governance could serve ECOWAS well. Local leaders could be of strategic value to ECOWAS' forces regarding intelligence, and mobilising the people against the insurgents. Mark F. Cancian, a former Colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, notes that in the Iraqi province of Al Anbar it was the involvement of the local leaders 'Awakening sheiks' that turned the war in U.S. favour in late 2006 and early 2007.

Similarly addressing poverty, inequality and underdevelopment in northern Mali could strategically tilt the hearts and minds of the population away from MNLA and Ansar Dine. By all account northern Mali is relatively poor compared to the south of the country. The lack of development combined with minimal government presence undoubtedly contributed in the takeover of the region by MNLA, AQIM and Ansar Dine. Thus improving food security, water, energy and health security and general infrastructure such as roads, education, irrigation and housing in northern Mali could win the population over to the ECOWAS and alienate the insurgents.

More crucial is building the capabilities of the Malian Police to provide security for the civilian population. The Police having operated in the cities in the north for years may know the leadership of the insurgents, where they live and could therefore provide useful information for their arrest. Building the capabilities of Mali's 7000 poorly equipped and poorly remunerated soldiers and restoring the soldiers' morale could tilt the balance of power in ECOWAS favour should full scale counterinsurgency become the last resort. In other words security must go hand in hand with governance and development. The three are what Bruce Hoffman and Seth G. Jones have termed “the holy trinity of counterinsurgency”.

Lord Aikins Adusei, [email protected]
22/08/2012

quot-img-1A bird sitting on a tree is never afraid of the branch breaking, because her trust is not on the branch, but on it's on wings. Always believe in yourself!

By: Obe Lanre quot-img-1
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