I want to preface this post by saying that I’m in no way an expert on Mali, or Africa, or France, or anything really. The purpose is to summarize a conflict that Marines should be paying attention to as professionals, not to pass judgement on France’s decision to intervene in Mali, and to highlight parallels with how the US projects force overseas.
First, the background. Mali has been facing an Islamist rebellion that is “linked” to Al-Qaeda for quite some time, but events came to a head after the rebels seized a strategic point that threatens the line of communication between Mali’s north and south regions. Read Joshua Foust at PBS.org for a good summary of events so far. Also, read Daveed Gartenstein-Ross for a look at some of the second and third order effects.
Although there seems to be a coalition of Islamist groups as described by Foust, the forces employed by the rebels seem to be standard. Their maneuver forces consist of irregular troops armed with small arms, mostly transported by pickup truck. They most likely also have machine guns and technicals. They lack is air defense, significant indirect fires, and armor, so combined arms is beyond their reach. Their strategic end seems to be the establishment of an Islamic state in Mali, although they have yet to do so in the territory they do control.
There is a coalition arrayed against the rebels but thus far France is taking the lead. They have already conducted airstrikes on rebel positions from regional air bases. These air strikes imply that French military intelligence is effective at locating and confirming rebel positions. French ground forces at this time include 750-800 troops, but that number is expected to increase to 2,500 total troops. Units include French Marines, legionaries, and special forces, including a unit of tanks and other armored vehicles. The coalition France has formed includes non-combat support from the UK and the US, as well as other regional partners like Algeria. Their strategic end seems to be to preserve the legitimate government of Mali in Bamako and its territorial integrity.
From French statements, they plan on this being a short intervention. This makes sense because the order of battle above tells only part of the story. What the French task force will do is halt rebel gains, thus depriving them of the initiative and demoralize their troops. This is already happening as rebel forces are retreating in the face of French air strikes. Simultaneously, rebel failure will reinforce the morale of the significant number of Malian troops and units from allied African nations. Mali is already conducting a counterattack against rebel forces and prior rebel successes see to have convinced the Taureg rebels that the government in Bamako is preferable to islamist rule. In short, Operation Serval is an example of offshore balancing. With a minimal investment, France and other Western nations are already balancing the scales towards the Mali government in order to protect their interests in the region. Once the rebels have been knocked down, it will be up to the Malian military to keep the boot on their neck. To this end, France and other countries are already moving to provide training and assistance to the Malian military, as well as humanitarian aid to displaced civilians. This is in stark contrast to Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, where the US ignored these inevitable requirements until well after they were needed.
The French response shows that the MAGTF construct is valid even outside of amphibious operations. France has had to cobble together a balanced military force to stem the tide of rebel advances in Mali. While France certainly has to the assets to produce their own air ground task force, they are now surely scrambling to work out command and control issues and each component has not worked or trained together towards a single objective up until this point. USMC MAGTFs short circuit this otherwise necessary period of acclimation when disparate military units are joined by joining them ahead of time. If the US had decided to intervene in Mali, the Marine Corps provides a comparable force that has already trained together during their workup under clear command and control relationships in accordance with long-standing doctrine. Raymond Pritchett’s remark that France found itself in need of a MAGTF is clearly correct. The French task force is expected to reach 2,500 troops. A typical MEU provides around 2,200 troops that includes maneuver, fire support, and aviation units and their combat service and support enablers, meaning that the force can sustain itself for a period of time. French leadership is probably examining what kind of combat power it needs and how it can be supported. In this situation, US leadership would only have to task a MEU as the questions regarding support are already answered. France’s eventual intervention will most likely look similar to an American MEU.
Despite the fact that the US is perhaps better prepared to respond to unforeseen crises around the world, Marines can certainly garner lessons from Operation Serval. Mali is exactly the kind of crisis for which a forward deployed MEU is designed, and France’s success or failure can inform their employment. To keep up with this conflict, follow the blogs Sahel Blog (h/t @texasinafrica) and al-Wasat. Information Dissemination, an indispensable read for many reasons, will most likely cover naval issues as well.
* I wrote this post before the hostage situation in Algeria, so that is not covered.