A very senior British general said of Operation Serval in Mali that France had “set the standard” for crisis military interventions. Praise indeed and not easily given. One can always tell when a crisis is being managed to effect as the press lose interest.
The challenge Paris faced when four thousand French troops arrived in Mali in February was complicated to say the least. Tuaregs had taken control of northern Mali and sought separation. They were supported by a particularly nasty bunch of Islamists (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Mujao) who had profited (literally) from the chaos in neighboring Libya. To make things worse the Malian Army, or what was left of it, was in meltdown and the country’s political system with it. Now, with the Tuaregs having signed a June peace deal, last year’s military coup leader having apologized and elections planned for 28 July, Mali has at least a chance of a future.
How did the French pull off this genuine military success?
Critically, Operation Serval was built on strategic unity of effort and purpose underpinned by speed, mass, precision, and sustained political and military momentum. French forces, operating alongside unexpectedly effective Chadian colleagues, drove back the Tuareg separatists and their Islamist partners. The very shock of the French intervention opened-up very deep divisions between the two insurgent groups.
French commanders proved particularly effective in coordinating both logistics and a range of allies and ad hoc partners under French command. Critically, France was unequivocally in the lead and for the first time US and other allied forces operated to effect under French operational command. This success is testament to the years of joint training and efforts to improve interoperability between French forces and those of its allies. Indeed, Operation Serval is now a model for the force generation and command of a complex coalition, something that far from being a one-off is likely to become the norm.
French forces were also willing to recognize where they needed support, particularly for strategic air-lift (Americans, British, and interestingly Russians), air-to-air refueling, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (the Americans and others).
However, for all the undoubted military success two other factors proved critical.
First, speed of reaction. Within hours of President Hollande’s Go decision French aircraft took off from Saint Dizier air base and flew ten hours to strike key targets in Northern Mali. These strikes knocked the Islamist/Separatist coalition off-balance from which they never recovered. These strikes were followed rapidly by the deployment of particularly effective French Special Forces. Like the British in Sierra Leone in 2000 the shock of a front-line Western military force interceding was sufficient to influence events decisively.
Second, the application of political and military tools took place against the backdrop of deep French historical knowledge of the Malian people, the country and the wider Sahel region. Knowledge and contacts were vital factors in Serval’s success.
In other words, France’s strategic ‘brand’ allied to expert use of force proved decisive. It was not simply ‘what’ was intervening, but ‘who’ was intervening and how. This is something the British political leadership might wish to contemplate as they replace strategy with austerity as the key driver of Britain’s defense strategy. For the moment Britain’s armed forces still have a well-deserved reputation for excellence but any more cuts will render both them and their strategic brand broken.
However, perhaps the most decisive factor in Operation Serval was the joined-upness of a French government in crisis. From Hollande at the top of the power pyramid through the foreign and defense ministries and onto the service and intelligence chiefs and down to the force and operational commanders Serval was well-conceived, soundly planned, expertly generated, and effectively executed.
France was assisted by the strategic and tactical incompetence of their adversaries, as the British were back in the 1982 Falklands War against Argentina. And, in reality one rarely gets the chance to choose one’s crises. Mali was ‘doable,’ whereas Afghanistan and Iraq were at the very limits of ‘doability’ and Libya on the edge. It may be that future crises will not be so accommodating to either France or her allies.
Furthermore, with the conclusion of this first crisis phase the political battle for Mali is still to come. The 28 July elections will at best be flawed even if they go ahead. And of course Serval has not stabilized the Sahel as a whole, partly because the West thinks states while Islamists think peoples. Therefore, not too much strategic should be read in to Serval.
Equally, the French military success in Mali should not be under-estimated. Mali is a big and desolate place and as an example of both statecraft and military craft France has every right to be proud of Serval whatever happens next, wherever it happens.
Julian Lindley-French is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisory Group. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast.