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Logistical Challenges of Combating Islamic Militants in Saharan Africa

January 17, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Jeffrey Brown gets an update on the situation in Algeria and the French intervention in Mali from ITN's Lindsey Hilsum. Ray Suarez discusses the logistical issues inherent in battling Islamist militants in Saharan Africa, as well as the role of the U.S. with Atlantic Council's J. Peter Pham and retired Col. Cedric Leighton.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Mali today, French forces encountered stiff resistance from Islamic extremists controlling the northern part of the country. The town of Banamba, just 90 miles from Mali’s capital, was put on alert and a contingent of roughly 100 Malian soldiers sped there after reported sightings of jihadists in the area.

Meanwhile, the first detachment of troops from a West African regional force arrived to reinforce French and Malian troops.

A short while ago, I spoke with Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News. She’s at a military base in Markala.

Lindsey Hilsum, thanks for joining us.

I want to ask you first about the reaction in Mali to what’s now happening in neighboring Algeria. Is the connection obvious?

LINDSEY HILSUM, Independent Television News: The connection is very obvious.

The French know that they have kicked the hornet’s nest. But at the same time, what they believe is that the situation would have been worse if they had not moved. What they say is that these jihadists were preparing to move south down the road to the Malian capital, Bamako.

If they had taken the capital, then they would have controlled all of the country, so it would have been like Afghanistan was under the Taliban, a whole country controlled by jihadis, who would use it as a base for terrorism across the world.

So although there is a lot of concern, anxiety, and upset obviously about what has happened in Algeria, from the French point of view, they’re preventing a worse outcome.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, give us a sense of the fighting now, particularly in and around the town of Diabaly. What kind of resistance are the French meeting?

LINDSEY HILSUM: Well, the fighters, the jihadi fighters are very mobile. They have armored vehicles. They’re not heavily armed. An officer I spoke to today said that they didn’t have, as far as he knew, surface-to-air missiles, for example, but they have AK-47s, they have rocket-propelled grenades.

At the moment, as we speak, there are air raids going on, on Diabaly. That’s about 100 miles up the road where from I am. But what I understand is that those jihadists, they are still in the town controlling the town and that others have melted out into the bush.

And I think that the great concern is while the French can stop the advance of the jihadis with airstrikes and they can then do more with a ground assault alongside Malian forces, what will then happen is that these jihadis, they will melt away, they will go underground, and then they will come back.

We have seen in the Afghanistan, we have seen it in Iraq, improvised explosive devices, guerrilla-style attacks.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we heard reports of the arrival of the first African forces in Mali. What’s their mission and what’s the expectation of the extent of the French military mission in the coming days?


LINDSEY HILSUM: Well, the French say that there will be 2,500 French forces here. We’re talking about Marines, Foreign Legion, air force, many of them trained in desert warfare in Chad, others who’ve been in the Ivory Coast, so neighboring African countries.


Their job will be to spearhead this and to have these first assaults that we have seen over the last few days. The African troops will probably be in more of a peacekeeping mission, if there is a peace to keep. The problem that the African troops have, including the Malians, is that they have no logistics.

It’s extremely difficult for them to keep their troops fed and watered and sheltered, provide ammunition and so on. So they will not be effective unless French, other European and American forces help with transport and logistics.

JEFFREY BROWN: Lindsey Hilsum in Mali, thanks for talking to us.

LINDSEY HILSUM: You’re welcome.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on the situation in Mali and the wider region in North Africa, we get two views.

J. Peter Pham is the director of the AfricaCenter at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. And retired Colonel Cedric Leighton had a 26-year career in the Air Force, where he focused on intelligence and did a number of stints in the Middle East. He now has his own risk management consulting firm.

Peter Pham, you have heard Lindsey Hilsum talk about France kicking the hornet’s nest. Do you agree that the action in Algeria signals a regionalization of this conflict, that it’s a very different thing now?

J. PETER PHAM, Atlantic Council: Very much so, although it’s been a regional challenge for some time, except that our attention wasn’t focused upon it.

But to remind us, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb certainly staged this event. I think they had several goals in mind. Certainly, if they had been successful, grab a few more hostages — they’re already holding half-a-dozen French hostages. This would add to the number that they could use in leverage.

But also what’s interesting is what they didn’t do. They didn’t blow up that gas installation. It was a reminder to the Algerian government that we can strike, we didn’t choose to do so this time, but next time we could hit your vital oil and natural gas facilities, which supply, by the way, one-fifth of Europe’s energy needs.

So there are some serious implications that could come out of this.

RAY SUAREZ: You have got a NATO partner in France fighting against a guerrilla army in Mali. It’s not an easy task, is it?

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), U.S. Air Force: Not at all.

And from a logistical standpoint, I thought the ITN reporter was spot on when she talked about the logistical issues that are inherent in any kind of war, but they are particularly inherent in one where the climate is difficult, where the terrain is almost impossible, and where you’re really not used to configuring your forces in a way that allows you to move rapidly in this kind of terrain.

It’s very much akin to the American Southwest and it is a very, very difficult area, not only from the standpoint of things like temperature and mountains and things of that nature. It’s the nature of the terrain that makes it very difficult to move from one point to another.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, we have been covering the fight in Mali over the last several days, but Algeria hasn’t been in the news for a long time. What’s the state of play there? Who’s running the place?

J. PETER PHAM: Well, there’s a government in Algeria. It’s one that probably we would describe as formerly a republic, but an authoritarian state, certainly not a democracy.

It’s the one North African continent that really hasn’t seen the Arab spring. The extremists in Northern Mali, many of the leaders come from Algeria. They’re veterans of that war.

Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the one who is responsible for this attack, is an Algerian, gone to Afghanistan, came back, fought in Algeria for a while, then moved south as pressure was put upon him. And now he’s obviously making a play back in Algeria again.

RAY SUAREZ: So are a lot of the countries across the Sahara vulnerable to this activity?

CEDRIC LEIGHTON: Every single country across the Sahara is vulnerable to this kind of activity.

You talk about Algeria. Peter mentioned that this is in essence an authoritarian government. Authoritarian governments by their very nature are brittle governments. They’re authoritarian for a reason, because they don’t allow their population to do things because they don’t dare allow the population to do things like democratic movements, peaceable assembly, things that we take for granted in the United States.

But every single country, if you take Mali, if you look at Mauritania, which is to the west of Mali, if you look to the east of Mali, you have Niger — huge uranium deposits in Niger, fourth largest producer of uranium in the world. These are the kinds of things that could happen to each of these areas. And they could then spread south into other parts of Africa.

The French presence in the Ivory Coast ®MD-BO¯is another big factor in all of this and it allows them a logistical jumping-off point for the conflict in Mali. But it’s also a vulnerable area which has had its own difficulties of late.

RAY SUAREZ: You mentioned the Arab spring. Was the fall of Gadhafi in Libya something that lit the fuse across these other countries?

J. PETER PHAM: I wouldn’t say it lit the fuse. I call it — to follow on that metaphor, perhaps it was the accelerant.

There was always a spark. Northern Mali had been marginalized politically and economically for some time. The Tuaregs were seeking some legitimate grievances to be redressed, but then, all of a sudden, you had fighters who had experience, freed up former mercenaries of Gadhafi.

You had enormous stockpiles of weapons unleashed, and you have had — al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb has for 10 years now been a pretty good criminal organization, making money off kidnapping for ransom, protecting narco-traffickers, other contraband.

And then they have this — with this war chest, they took it to market when the weapons became available and the fighters, and now they’re in business.

RAY SUAREZ: So you mentioned all the natural endowments of these lands. They’re very sparsely populated, practically empty, you might say.


RAY SUAREZ: Does the United States have a real interest in what goes on here, and how does it express that interest without getting involved?

CEDRIC LEIGHTON: It becomes very difficult.

The real interest, Ray, that we have is to make sure that this doesn’t become another jumping-off point for an al-Qaida-like organization to attack the rest of the world. And that’s the big danger. That’s why the French acted. They believe that this is their version of Afghanistan, in essence, in other words, a base for militant groups to use to attack the homeland, in this case metropolitan France, the French part of Europe.

And for the United States, of course, it’s extremely important that the European integrity be kept whole. Then, when you look at other things that could possibly happen, you look at the possible cutting off of uranium supplies and other energy supplies from this part of the world, natural gas in the case of Algeria, oil in other parts of the Middle East and North Africa, uranium in Niger, all of these things become exceptionally important.

And if, for example, in Nigeria, which is further south, if the oil supply from there is disrupted, that could have a significant effect on the oil markets and on all of our strategic interests in and around the world.

RAY SUAREZ: In recent years, the United States opened an Africa Command. What does it do and would it be naturally involved in either watching or actively participating in suppressing this Malian revolt?

J. PETER PHAM: Well, certainly, the Africa Command will have responsibility when our civilian leaders decide what it is that America is going to do here.

As Cedric just said, we clearly have interests in the region, but we need to define our objectives. And the French, actually, to be quite frank, need to define their objectives.

So far, we have gotten sort of a grab bag of list of desiderata, but we need objectives to find and then we need to match resources and means and approaches to achieving those objectives.

And I think that’s the key to managing the challenge we have there. Otherwise, we’re going to find ourselves quickly sucked into a veritable quagmire.

RAY SUAREZ: But it is a big challenge?

CEDRIC LEIGHTON: It’s a huge challenge.

And to play off of Peter’s point, it’s absolutely essential — in essence, what we’re talking about is developing a real strategy, and the strategy is the ends that you’re seeking, the means that you would use to get to those ends and the way in which you do that. So it’s an ends, ways, and means type equation that you have to go through from a military perspective.

And if the ends, ways, and means aren’t clear, then we get into a position where you can actually get into a quagmire that it would be very, very difficult to extricate ourselves from, and that’s the big danger with Mali.

You don’t want that to happen. You want to contain what’s going on there, and you want to make it a very clear delineation between the areas that are held by the Tuaregs and Ansar al-Dine and all of those people, as well as the government in Mali. And that whole governmental structure, of course, is subject to change.

RAY SUAREZ: Cedric Leighton, Peter Pham, thank you both.

J. PETER PHAM: Thank you.

CEDRIC LEIGHTON: Pleasure. Been a pleasure.