The French in Mali: Phase Two


2013-04-25 By Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake

Recently, Second Line of Defense’s Murielle Delaporte spent time with the French forces in Mali.

Embedded with the forces she was able to observe the transition of those forces within Mali. Soon, Delaporte will be reporting on her look at the transition and how the French forces have shaped their logistics operations.

These pieces will appear on Second Line of Defense, in the forthcoming issue of  Soutien Logistique Défense and in other publications.

Recently, we interviewed Delaporte via phone when she returned from Mali to Paris, France.  The full interview will appear soon on Second Line of Defense. Here we want to highlight our understanding of developments based on that interview.

In effect, the French intervened in Mali to deal with the insurgent take-over of Mali and the threat of augmenting a terrorist base in Mali.  In her piece on AOL Defense, Delaporte argued:

A rapid and massive offensive was generated to block the insurgents from reaching Bamako who were within several days reach of the capital.

A month later, as the commander of French Army Aviation in Mali explained in a recent interview: “The enemy has been taken by surprise and is now destabilized. Because of the lightning speed of the maneuver by the Serval force, the insurgents are now fleeing and not willing to fight, as they did not expect such concentration and mobility above their heads.”

Even though the war has, of course, not been won yet, the operation of joint air and ground raids to unloose the Gordian knot of AQIM (Al Qaeda In Maghreb), and other insurgents groups, has been crucial. This effort has been possible due to several factors: The first is the speed of the French forces and the ability to react in a matter of hours as far as air operations were concerned.

She further developed her assessment in her piece The French Serval Operation.

A convoy of Malian troops makes a stop to test some of their weapons near Hambori, northern Mali, on the road to Gao, Monday Feb. 4, 2013. French troops launched airstrikes on Islamic militant training camps and arms depots. Credit: AP 

In this piece she examined the operation from the perspective of the threats being addressed and the means provided to deal with those threats.  She emphasized that the combination of rapid insertion of force to forceful attack the insurgents, with coalition support and the use of French pre-deployed forces in Africa along with a commitment to work with the Malian Army and African peacekeepers was the core focus of the operation.

In her visit in Mali, Delaporte was able to see first hand the results and the current approach for what could be called phase two of the operation. 

Phase three could be characterized as the shaping of the post-insurgent Mali, and here working with the Mali government and African forces is central.  In this phase, European support and trainers will be a key part of shaping whatever is possible with regard to stability in Mali.

Phase two, the current phase, is the simultaneous drawdown, and setting in motion the French role for phase three.

French forces entered rapidly at the beginning of the operation, and, as a result, they have been forming a 21st century caravan approach where logistics and operational elements had to be combined into a single force. 

There is no classic approach to the rear and the front.

The forces are expeditionary and carry their capabilities with them, and are adjusting what capabilities they will need to support phase three. 

This is no building of US Army WALMARTS as was done in Iraq.

The French forces re-discovered the extremely rustic deployment conditions in Mali, which meant as well that there was not time to pre-deploy the classic minimum logistic requirements; the French know they are a force within a context, not the force remaking the country.

Delaporte emphasized in the interview that the convoy on which she spent several days going from the South to the North was moving forward to Gao and would return with vehicles and other equipment as part of the transition of forces out of Mali.  The convoy as were the French forces had a constant battle against sand, heat and vibrations due to very bad roads in making sure that the equipment worked and they could move forward.

She also noted that the French forces when they inserted initially came with kit and support integrally integrated with their strike forces and this combination allowed them to

“surprise the insurgents and to allow the French to move much more rapidly than they anticipated. This pushed the insurgents into caves and other locations where fierce fighting unfolded and the French were able to succeed.”

She emphasized that clear rules of engagement were a crucial part of allowing the French forces to operate successfully.  But it is also the case, that the French forces have understood the role of Command and Control versus simply operating within a coalition.  The fact that the French forces had a very clear NATIONAL command and control was central to mission success which historically can be traced back to the commitment of France to have its independent nuclear deterrence communication capabilities; coalition support has been significant and important, but for the strike mission to succeed quickly, coalition command and control could be an impediment, and not an ingredient for success.

She also emphasized the central role of local knowledge of the French with the area in providing the kind of intelligence central to the security of French forces.  It was not a question of simply putting up UAVs and other assets to provide for the kind of situational awareness, but rather human intelligence and broad acceptance of the population for the presence of the French and coalition forces which was central.

It seems as if the adversary comes from the 19th century with 21st century means, and in a way the French are returning to their 19th century roots and reinventing the caravan concept of taking what you need to do an operation along with the force to pursue the adversary and to shape mission success.

In effect, rather than looking to the Big Army model of “shock and awe” and then rebuild a country with large foreign forces, the French are looking to a different and more modest approach.

“Shock and Awe” becomes the insertion of strike forces able to operate rapidly because of expeditionary logistics with the clear objective to work with coalitions in shaping as much stability in the region as is possible, but without turning the region into a democratic paradise.

And the key transitional element is shaping a small presence force able to operate with autonomy with clear rules of engagement able to work with coalition forces.