France will keep its troops in Mali a month later than planned, with withdrawal beginning in April. France is still not sure which senior Mali leaders were killed recently, because definitive identification of these senior but definitely dead men has proved difficult to confirm. In the last two weeks days France rapidly moved troops into the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains near the Algerian border, where France already knew of al Qaeda had bases. French warplanes have been bombing these bases as more recon aircraft and UAVs are available to confirm al Qaeda targets.
France and its African allies (especially the desert experienced Chadians) are making an effort to kill or capture as many veteran al Qaeda men before they can scatter to more distant sanctuaries. To this end the recent arrival of American UAVs and electronic intelligence collecting aircraft have proved crucial in detecting and tracking Islamic terrorists who attempt to leave the mountains and head for Libya, Algeria or more distant points. France would prefer to capture as many of these terrorists as possible, but second best is killing them and searching the bodies. French aircraft have to do the killing because the American UAVs are unarmed. The American aircraft have apparently provided target information for at least sixty of the French air strikes in the last few weeks. France is also seeking to rescue seven French civilians believes held captive in the Adrar des Ifoghas. So far the French force of 4,000 in Mali has lost four troops killed during eight weeks of fighting. There are 1,200 French and 800 Chadian troops in the mountains near the Algerian border and dozens of al Qaeda safe houses and weapons and ammo storage sites have been captured or destroyed from the air.
An African peacekeeping force of about 5,000 troops is occupying the cities and large towns in northern Mali and fighting with al Qaeda men who did not make it to the mountains or across the border. The destruction of so many al Qaeda bases in Mali, and the death of hundreds of hard-core Islamic terrorists there have demoralized Islamic radicals throughout North Africa. At the same time all counter-terrorism forces in the region are trying to take advantage of all this by seeking out Islamic terrorists fleeing Mali.
In the end it may be that driving al Qaeda out of Mali was easy while dealing with the rebellious Malian Army proved to be much more difficult. At the moment the Mali Army has about 10,000 people on the payroll and about 6,000 of these are soldiers while the rest are support personnel. The army has always been more of a political than a military force. Jobs in the military are much sought after and those who get them are expected to bring the support of their family for whoever runs the military. Until last year it was senior politicians who controlled the military. Then a coup by junior officers, seeking better weapons and equipment for the army displaced the political control.
Politicians are notoriously corrupt in Mali but the new army leadership, calling for clean government, has now become a force to contend with in Mali politics. To the foreign nations that supply much of the government budget (via foreign aid) the coup is not acceptable. The foreigners want the elections back, even though the elections were rigged by the corrupt politicians that the younger officers despise. Unfortunately, these officers are not immune to the endemic corruption and are turning into the kind of men they seek to replace. It’s a messy situation that mixes rebellious troops with corrupt politicians. While the EU (European Union) training force (220 military trainers and another to train civilian officials) is planning to train and equip four battalions (about have the troops in the Mali Army) to a higher standards, forcing out the officers who support the coup will be a lot more difficult. The training program begins on April 2nd.
March 6, 2013: A French soldier was killed a hundred kilometers north of Gao in northern Mail while accompanying a force of one hundred Chadian troops that encountered some al Qaeda men. Four Chadians and an unknown number of terrorists were wounded. In the last few days over a hundred al Qaeda men have been killed or wounded. These men were part of a larger force (of several hundred al Qaeda) that were either trapped in Gao or entered from Niger, which is just across the Niger River.
In the northern mountains 2,000 French and Chadian troops killed at least 15 Islamic terrorists in several clashes today. This fighting took place in the Ametetai valley, where over a hundred Islamic terrorists had taken refuge. The valley has water, as do many other valleys in these mountains near the Algerian border. The locals want no part of this fighting, but will provide information with the right incentives (cash will often work, as it worked for al Qaeda, which operated their lucrative and drug smuggling operations from bases in these mountains).
March 3, 2013: Over the last three days more than fifty Islamic terrorists were killed during several clashes in northern Mali. Ten Chadian and one French soldier were also killed. Dozens of vehicles and large quantities of weapons and documents were captured. All this took place between Gao and the Adrar des Ifoghas Mountains near the Algerian border.
March 1, 2013: The Chadian government went public with the news that Chadian troops in northern Mali had killed two al Qaeda leaders on February 22nd.
Mali announced that presidential elections will be held in July. It’s still unclear if the army leadership will obey whoever is elected.
February 28, 2013: France has spent $131 million for its Mali operations so far and some French officials want to keep French troops there until July. Other French leaders want to get the troops out beginning in March. Apparently a compromise on the withdrawal date is in the works.
February 26, 2013: In the northern city of Kidal a suicide car bomber killed six armed Tuaregs manning a check point. The Tuareg rebel militias split with al Qaeda over eight months ago and shifted their allegiance to the French when French troops showed up in northern Mali. Kidal is the nearest city to the Adrar des Ifoghas Mountains.
February 22, 2013: Chadian troops in northern Mali believed they killed Mokhtar Belmokhtar (the planner of the January natural gas facility attack in southern Algeria that got 37 workers killed) and Abdelhamid Abou Zeid (leader of the other al Qaeda group that was long based in these mountains.
Al Qaeda later said Belmokhtar was still alive but offered no proof. The loss of Belmokhtar would be a major blow to al Qaeda morale as Belmokhtar had a reputation for always escaping the many efforts to kill or capture him. When a legend dies, it is always demoralizing for the followers. The supreme leader of al Qaeda in North Africa (Abdel Malek Droukdel) is believed to be still hiding out in northern Algeria and he would be the one to appoint a successor to Belmokhtar, who was number two or three in the North African al Qaeda organization. There has been no such announcement yet.
The battle that got the two al Qaeda leaders cost the lives of 13 Chadian troops and over 40 other Islamic terrorists.
The U.S. announced that it had set up a UAV and intelligence base in nearby Niger. About a hundred American troops were there to maintain several Reaper UAVs.
February 21, 2013: Two suicide car bombers attempted to attack a French camp outside the northern town of Tessalit. In addition to the bombers, three others were killed.