According to reports, the French-led coalition of the willing in Mali’s north killed two of top leaders of AQIM (al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, i.e. North Africa) last week, along with an unspecified but reportedly significant number of their fighters.
Though French spokesmen held back identifying the enemy leaders killed pending analysis of forensic evidence, Chadian military and civilian officials proclaimed a major victory in the campaign to restore Malian sovereignty over the territory north of the Niger river that was lost during last year’s Tuareg war. With French and coalition forces occupying all the major towns of the north, the AQIM and their affiliates have sought refuge, according to reports, in the redoubts of the Ifhogas mountains at the junction of southwestern Algeria, Mali, and northwestern Niger.
Chad and France face opposite public affairs requirements. A certain reticence on the French side contrasts with an outspokenness on the Chadian one. The Sahel region’s former colonial power, with some four thousand men on the ground and a substantial investment in Mirage fighters relentlessly showing the enemy he can run but he cannot hide, must keep in mind that perhaps a dozen of their nationals are prisoners of North African jihado-criminal gangs. French officials fear gloating might provoke their captors into homicidal frenzy, a condition for which they have a marked propensity. Moreover, they must plan for post-campaign diplomacy aimed at stabilizing the Sahel, which in turn means taking the lead without quite saying so, out of respect for regional post-colonial sensitivities.
Sensitivity to African sensitivities -- or mere respect for the uniforms that guard him -- appears to rank low in the catalog of Nicolas Sarkozy’s personal qualities. The conqueror of Tripoli -- a conquest about as real as was de Gaulle’s liberation of Paris in August 1944, given that its unmentioned sine qua non was the politely discreet massive deployment of American military power just offstage -- is widely believed in the Sahel to have provoked the Mali war by enabling Gaddafi’s Tuareg legion to escape the mayhem in Libya with a mighty arsenal and head home, where they, essentially, proceeded to shoot up the joint.
This is undoubtedly a simplistic analysis of what happened. But while it is surely true, as Alain Juppe, France’s erstwhile foreign minister, pointed out last year, that the Tuareg Question long antedates the current conflict in Mali, it is also difficult to deny the recklessness with which Sarkozy embarked on a Libyan adventure that the leaders of France’s ex-colonies in the region told him would have repercussions for themselves.
To wit, the Chadians have some three thousand men in northern Mali, a heavy military burden for a very poor nation of only 11 million with a history of political violence and instability. President Idriss Deby, who has fought off armed rebellions in recent years, has an interest in emphasizing his “regional citizenship.” He has reminded his neighbors in the ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, which is the closest thing West Africa has to a military-political union, that they too pledged money and men for Mali.
Regardless of what one makes of the claims of the contending tribal groups in northern Mali, Idriss Deby and his head of state homologues have strong cause to believe failure to restore order in Mali prior to bringing the contending parties around a table to discuss the perennial “now what to do” of international politics, will be an invitation for more disorder. Across the entire region that forms the shores of the Sahara, and quite specifically in Chad, armed men would like nothing better than evidence governments will cave or crumble before the threat of arms.
The failure of the U.S.-supported government of Mali to defend its the northern territories led to a coup almost exactly a year ago, exposing the shortcomings of a vulnerable democracy. And failure begets more failure: only this past week, the author of last year’s coup, a young captain named Amadou Sanogo, who supposedly learned something in some of our military education establishments including that famed center of applied scholarly brilliance known as the National Defense University, was given a high sounding job with altogether high-sounding pay and perks, to help “reform” the Malian armed forces whose honor he had done so much to embellish, notably by allowing his men to go on looting sprees in Bamako after last year’s coup. A few weeks following this display of military discipline they nearly lynched the transitional president; last December, notwithstanding their pledge to let the transition follow its constitutionally prescribed course, they told the transitional prime minister (another American trainee, though in physics not military affairs) to resign or else. He chose the more prudent course.
A claim I have not verified has it that there are more general officers in the Malian defense force than in the U.S. Army. Not one of them has been anywhere near the northern front, any more than Capt. Sanogo, but Idriss Déby’s own son, a general in the Chadian army, was wounded ten days ago during the operation in the mountains that produced the alleged elimination of Abu Zeid and Mochtar Belmochtar.
If Abu Zeid and Moktar Belmoktar are indeed confirmed to have been among the enemy casualties the past fortnight’s battles, AQMI -- al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb -- is automatically in a leadership crisis. These were -- if the past tense avers itself to be accurate -- successful radicals and violent, evil men, with large quantities of blood on their hands. Belmoktar, who is reported to have split off from AQMI last year (revolutionary organizations in all epochs and places are prone to faction fights), masterminded the seizure of the In Amenas gas complex in Algeria last month, with its bloody climax as Algerian forces regained control.
The Chadians are proving their mettle even as the Malians seem to be passing the chance to share in their own national epic. It is too early to properly evaluate the battle for Mali, and the French command has kept media away from the battle zones. Probably the Chadians could not have been so successful on the ground had the French not swiftly pushed the enemy away from the northern cities and into the mountains whose terrain the Chadians are familiar with from having fought similar campaigns in their own country. However, there is no doubting the debt Mali, and the other West African countries, will owe Chad, assuming the campaign is brought to a successful conclusion.
Unfortunately, this is far from given. Mali remains, as the Sanogo promotion symbolizes, a political mess in which civilian bigs and military brass scarcely bother to pretend they place duty and the public interest ahead of their personal opportunities for position and gain. The ECOWAS appears to be no closer to formulating a plan for the day after the fighting stops than they were when it began in early January. They are muttering in councils and press conferences that perhaps the idea of a blue-helmet contingent, as proposed by the U.N.’s secretary general, might be just the ticket, which of course it would be if avoiding the burden of responsibility is what they are really after. And now Nicolas Sarkozy is rubbing it in.
Seizing the moment with his usual finesse -- just after another French soldier was killed on the Mali front -- the ex-president suggested it is foolish to throw four thousand men into a country larger than France with no functioning government. An arguable point, no doubt, and one that surely could be viewed as a belated recognition of his own last shot at foreign policy glory, but the issue here, as Presidents François Hollande, Idriss Deby, Niger’s Mahamadou Issouffou, e tutti have repeatedly explained, is only tangentially Mali: the issue is the invasion of black Africa by a coalition of Wahhabi jihadists and criminal gangs, and whether they can be pushed back into the desert and contained there, if not eliminated altogether.
Inadvertently or deliberately, Sarkozy has performed a service with his typically frivolous and arrogant remarks, namely, the sheer recklessness of the way leaders of the advanced democracies have treated questions of war and peace since political Islam burst upon us at the turn of the century. Issues of governance matter; but they always do, and they can always wait. What cannot wait is resistance. We were right to strike back -- in a mountainous country -- at our enemies as soon as they attacked us. We did as the desert fighters from Chad are doing. Now Nicolas Sarkozy wants first to worry over whether the territory they must fight over is properly governed? But is this not exactly the wrong turn we made in our campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan? We shall know soon enough. Until then, let us thank Chad’s brave soldiers, who with our gallant French allies are fighting not only for Mali and its neighbors, but for us too.