Amid sketchy and conflicting reports of how much territory the jihadists have gained in their southern thrust and to what extent last week's French air-strikes have halted it, BBC News tells us Jan. 16 that French ground forces are now engaged in the battle for the town of Diabaly, just 220 miles north of Mali's capital, Bamako. A convoy of 50 armored vehicles left Bamako overnight for Diabaly, seemingly a joint force of French and Malian troops. French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said: "Today, the ground forces are being deployed. Until now, we had made sure there were a few ground forces in Bamako to keep our people safe… Now French ground forces are heading up north."
A West African intervention force is meanwhile being prepared, with a company of 190 Nigerians to arrive this week. Nigeria is to lead the force, with 900 troops out of 3,300; the remainder coming from Benin, Ghana, Chad, Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Togo. Both the UK and Germany have supplied transport planes. Aviation Week notes that Belgium at French request is providing airlift and medical evacuation support for what is being dubbed "Operation Serval."
The BBC account also notes that the International Criminal Court has formally opened a war crimes investigation for Mali. "At each stage during the conflict, different armed groups have caused havoc and human suffering through a range of alleged acts of extreme violence," chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said. The ICC has been monitoring the situation in Mali since April, shortly after the rebels seized power in the north.
Deutsche Welle reported Jan. 15 that the UN Security Council voiced its approval of the French intervention, saying that it was covered by Resolution 2085, voted up in December to sanction an African-led intervention force. France's ambassador to the UN, Gerard Araud, announced the news after a two-hour meeting with Security Council members in New York.
The French news agency AFP (not the most objective source, needless to say) portrays widespread support for the intervention in Bamako, with cars sporting French flags and cheers of "Thanks Francois Hollande!" The account does note dissent within nationalist sectors of the Malian military. NPR's Africa correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton described "absolute jubilation" over the French air-strikes on the streets of Bamako.
A BBC News scorecard on the conflict names the three main jihadist factions as Ansar Dine, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Of the three, Ansar Dine is "the only genuine home-grown movement," led by the former Tuareg rebel commander Iyad Ag Ghaly. Its seeks to impose Islamist rule across Mali and its full name in Arabic, Harakat Ansar al-Dine, translates as "Movement of Defenders of the Faith." In contrast, AQIM has its roots in the Algerian civil war of the 1990s, and is the successor organization to Algeria's Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). AQIM seems to be closer to MUJAO than to Ansar Dine.
It should also be noted (BBC doesn't) that Ansar Dine has been in talks with the government for the past several weeks (suspended since the rebels' thurst south), and that AQIM doesn't actually control any territory, except inasmuch as it controls MUJAO. Ansar Dine controls Timbuktu and Kidal, while MUJAO controls Gao (see map), seemingly with Algerian AQIM fighters among their ranks (calling the shots?).
BBC News also reported that the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA)—the Tuareg rebel army that first seized Mali's north last April, before being shortly usurped themselves by the jihadists—has announced that it will join the offensive to re-take the north. The MNLA are secular separatists who want an independent state in northern Mali, which they call Azawad, while the jihadists semingly see control of the north only as step towards control of all Mali; so the are inevitably opposed. The MNLA also take a healthy skepticism towards French intervention, and the BBC emphasizes that their spokesman did not say they are prepared to fight alongside the French.
A Jan. 13 MNLA statement online at the Tuareg nationalist website Toumast Press reads (our translation from the French):
The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) declares to the international community that armed intervention against terrorist groups should not be allowed to permit the Malian army to cross the line of demarcation betweem Azawad and Mali before a political settlement to the conflict between us. It is within this context that the MNLA will work for the success of operations in the struggle against terrorism, and to minimize the risk of innocent civilian victims. We demand that the civil population of Azawad not be made the victim of armed intervention, and that there is no confusion between it and the terrorists.
The last MNLA forces were driven from northern Mali by MUJAO in November, and thir army now appears to be scattered. Mali Actualités reported last July that the MNLA leadership had taken refuge in Burkina Faso (where they have also jopined talks with the Malian government), while Magharebia reported Jan. 7 that their fighters are still arriving in Mauritania to seek shelter there. Do they have the capacity to regroup their forces in a way that can actually challenge the jihadists?
We have also noted that the civil population of those areas of Mali bordering jihadist-held territory (principally Mopti region) have been forming their own self-defense militias to defend against the Islamists—or, more ambitiously, to take back the north. The most significant of these is the Liberation Forces of the Northern Regions (FLN), based in the towns of Mopti and Sevare. They seem to have some degree of support from the official armed forces. FLN leader Moussa Traore served with the Malian army for 12 years, and still apparently has contacts in the military. "If I need 30 rifles, I can simply apply for them," he told Deutsche Welle. But DW also portrays the FLN as hostile to the MNLA, which is blamed for bringing instability to the north.
Finally, AQIM seems intent on taking the war to its home turf of Algeria. BBC News reports Jan. 16 that AQIM militants have seized the Amenas gas field in Algeria's interior Sahara, operated jointly by state company Sonatrach, Norway's Statoil and BP. Two foreign nationals, one of them British, was killed and several taken hostage.
In short, Mali seems poised for a chaotic multi-sided war which shows every prospect of becoming internationalized. Alas, progressives in the West, after completely ignoring Mali over the past several months of horrific atrocities in the north, are now either continuing to ignore it or, worse yet, consciously rejecting the notion of anything more than a "hands off Mali" position. The Malians, it seems, are invisible to leftists in the West as anything other than victims of imperialism. The hard, vital work of identifying our natural allies in Mali—progressive, secular, anti-imperialist forces—and figuring out how we can loan them some solidarity, has been wholly abdicated.
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