Fresh alarms have sounded inside and outside Mali as the Islamist militias currently ruling the northern territory continue to advance south. Their latest move on Konna follows a general culmination of activities into the Inner Niger Delta, the natural barrier between Mali's southern and northern regions, and positions them on both sides of the river. As has been the case with most urban takeovers in Mali's fledgling conflict, each side has disseminated opposing narratives to maintain the upper hand in a fast-paced information war.
"We have chased the army out of the city of Konna, which we have occupied since 11 a.m.," declared Sanda Abou Mohamed, a spokesman for the Ansar Dine militant group, speaking by telephone from Timbuktu.
Several Mali spokesmen have refused to comment on Konna's status. Other officials denied losing control of the town, which sits at the edge of government-controlled territory along the Islamists' front-lines. A third account from Malian soldiers suggests that they staged a tactical retreat with minimal losses, and they probably won't return until Mali's army and foreign allies launch an organized offensive into the Timbuktu region.
"We have deployed technical means and reinforcements to secure the front,"one military official told Reuters by telephone, asking not to be named. "We think (the Islamists) want to attack Sevare.”
Fears of a southerly invasion have injected renewed urgency into African leadership and the international apparatus that is attempting to reach a consensus of action: the African Union (AU), Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), United Nations (UN) and NATO. Responding to Tuesday's statements by Benin President and AU chairman Thomas Yayi Boni, who told reporters that "NATO should play a part and the African force would lead the way as was done by NATO in Afghanistan," an anonymous NATO official struck the idea down in public even though an intervention is likely to follow Boni's description.
Given that all involved African capitals expect some level of NATO assistance - from training and logistics to intelligence and air-power - this denial is explicitly false: “There has been no request or discussion on a possible role for NATO in Mali. NATO is not involved in this crisis but the situation in northern Mali is of course of grave concern to us all."
Nevertheless, NATO's total involvement is unlikely to accelerate until the UN approves the permanent guidelines of Resolutions 2071 and 2085, drafted in October and December to advance the international community's overall response to northern Mali. French support troops were allegedly scheduled to deploy in late January and may land shortly, but Paris and Washington are equally leery of diving in head first. The UN is currently in the process of holding a closed-doors meeting in response to the Islamists' ongoing movements and their impact on regional mediation. New efforts have been delayed to January 21st in order to give the Tuareg-Islamist faction, Ansar Dine, more time to comply with international demands.
Until then, the UN can merely repeat its futile request.
“We ask the Malian rebel groups to abide by Security Council resolutions 2071 and 2085 calling for them to cut off all ties with terrorist organizations,” Martin Nesirky said from UN headquarters in New York. "We urge adherence to the cessation of hostilities declared on 4 December 2012 in Ouagadougou and continue to call on the parties to engage in dialogue to address the situation."
The possibility of a southerly offensive towards Bamako, located 430 miles southwest of Konna, cannot be ruled out entirely; anticipating and planning for the worst scenarios is central to warfare and political science. In the event that the Islamists do push southward, NATO and the AU must be prepared to rapidly deploy a small number of solders as a front and last line of defense. These troops should assist in defending high-level human and structural targets, coordinating logistics, establishing communications, scouting and targeted raids. At the same time, Mali's own forces and civilian population must be tasked to the actual combat of Islamist militants in their local areas.
Direct foreign intervention is more necessary in the north than south, where the population should be and must be capable of mounting a formidable counterinsurgency.
These factors being duly considered, the Islamists appear to be working towards the alternative objective of reinforcing their perimeter. Rather than an organizing a sincere campaign into Mali's south, which would overtax their resources and commit a potentially fatal blunder, Ansar Dine and its allies are engaged in the strategic defense of their northern territory. Using the muscle imported by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its regional offshoot, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), Ansar Dine has gradually surrounded the Inner Niger for months in preparation for an international assault. Konna and the local center, Mopti, fit into a larger campaign to secure the entire delta, and thus obstruct the initial advance of Malian and foreign military units.
This plan includes the capture or destruction of Mopti's nearby airport at Sevare.
Having used the cover of dialogue with Ansar Dine to expand their area of operations, AQIM and MUJAO have also set about fortifying Mali's surrounding defenses. To the delta's north lies a desert of greater size than southern Afghanistan or Yemen, which doubles as the established territory between AQIM's network in Mauritania and Algeria. No surprise advance will occur through this terrain. Meanwhile, to the east, several groups operating under the command of AQIM and Ansar Dine have been tasked to fortify the mountains surrounding the Kidal region. These forces expect an Algerian assault at some point during an intervention, although Algiers has strongly backed negotiations with Ansar Dine, and evicting them from the Adrar des Ifoghas will be a challenge in itself.
Viewed as intentional strategic depth, the ongoing assault on Mopti's surrounding areas represents the creation of a buffer zone around northern Mali's population belt. The Islamists expect to be hit hard by foreign armor and air power, and thus expect to lose control of its front lines in the aftermath of "shock and awe" tactics. This inevitability forces them to push out as far as possible, in order to facilitate an organized withdrawal into the north and engage its opponent from multiple directions. Using a combination of ambushes, organized resistance and retreat, the Islamists will occupy a more solid position than if they were to let Malian and foreign forces smash into them at Timbuktu.
Mali's conflict must somehow reach a political agreement with the Tuaregs and other ethnic groups in order to create permanent stability, but the region won't see the light of resolution before a military confrontation.
[Note: This analysis was completed on Thursday night. Updates on France's emerging military involvement will be posted shortly.]