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Mali: A Car Wreck In Slow Motion

AI‘s Editor Adam Garfinkle continues to do the thankless job of holding the media accountable for lazy reporting on Mali. If you missed his earlier essay on the subject, drop everything and go read that now. It’s great stuff on an exceedingly complex and important conflict.

You’re back? Good. Now read part two, which among other things shows how outmatched the French are likely to be as this thing takes on a life of its own:

Before very long, then, the French will have to decide whether Mali is worth doing pretty much all by themselves, along with some probably very modest British and perhaps other allied help at the margins. Committing 2,500 French soldiers to the fight is not nothing, but it will take a lot more than that to prevail if ECOWAS and the Malian army both prove more or less useless.

What scale of problem are we talking about here anyway? Judging from publicly available news sources, the enemy looks small and manageable, certainly no larger in plain numbers than what the French faced, and faced down, in the Ivory Coast not that long ago. There are four groups making up what I will for the sake of simplicity call “the bad guys.” There are secular Tuareg units, two Islamist militias, and some non-Tuareg “guest fighters”, almost exclusively Arabic-speaking and associated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The Arabic-speakers seem to hail mainly from Algeria, being the residual cadres of Algeria’s civil war (now in remission), and from Libya. The total adds to around 3,000, operating in an environment unusually kind to airpower. We’re reduced virtually to guesswork at this point as to how these four groups relate to and cooperate with one another.

I don’t trust these numbers. There are about 1.2 million Tuareg living in a contiguous area that drapes over several international borders, and these are but notional borders that for the most part don’t actually exist on the ground. Even if we subtract the women, the elderly and the very young, we still have a male fighting-age population of at least 250,000. Even if only 5 percent of that number were mobilized in some way, we’d be talking about 12,500 “bad guys.” But let’s assume an even smaller number. To subdue around 5,000 rebels it would take, by standard General Templar calculation at the ten-to-one counterinsurgency ratio, about 50,000 troops. Let’s assume further that the French are super-French, so that they need only half of that: 25,000 troops. Well, folks, 2,500 is not 25,000, and 25,000 is a very large number for the contemporary French order-of-battle.

If there are long reads we’d recommend without hesitation this long weekend, it’s these two essays. Read them both.

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