Système D is a French term for the ability to think fast, adapt, and improvise in order to get a job done. It refers to the word "démerder" or to get of the shit. At least that's what a couple of French Foreign Legionnaires told me many years ago. I would argue that France's direct military intervention in Mali, Operation Cerval, is a beautiful example of système D.
Last week began with a renewed offensive by fighters from Ansar Dine and and the Islamist Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA). On Monday, 7 January, Islamist fighters captured at least twelve government soldiers along with their vehicle and equipment during a government patrol outside the town of Konna. Earlier that day, government soldiers fired on Ansar Dine fighters in an area 35 miles east of Mopti, a strategically important town on the frontier between rebel-held and government-held territories. Mopti hosts a key Malian military airstrip, actually at Severe, which would be vital for any future missions into the north of the country. Two days later, the battle for Konna began between government forces and MOJWA fighters. On Thursday, the Islamists captured the town after fierce fighting. That same day about 1,200 Ansar Dine and MOJWA fighters in 200 technicals moved to within twelve miles of Mopti. The situation looked dire to say the least.
Why did the Islamists resume their offensive now? They had the motive. They never had any intention of stopping at the border of the once and future land of Azawad. MOJWA is a black African led Islamic group that broke off from the mostly Algerian led AQIM. Their goal is to spread their brand of Salafism to most, if not all, of West Africa. They do not share the Tuareg dream of an independent Azawad espoused by the MNLA. Ansar Dine also wants to extend Sharia in all of Mali and not just to Azawad.
They had the means. The Salafist military forces were never stronger. Since their victories earlier last year, they worked feverishly to improve their military capabilities. They had the resources to do so through their kidnapping and smuggling enterprises and whatever funding their Gulf supporters provide. An unnamed Elysee Palace official quoted by Agence France-Presse said on Sunday that French armed forces were surprised by the fighting quality and the equipment of the militants they were up against. "At the start, we thought they would be just a load of guys with guns driving about in their pick-ups, but the reality is that they are well-trained, well-equipped, and well-armed," the official said. "From Libya they have got hold of a lot of up-to-date, sophisticated equipment which is much more robust and effective than we could have imagined."
Those who had issues with French involvement in the Libyan Revolution, will have the same issues with French intervention in Mali. In my opinion, the French could not have reacted better. They saw that the Islamists were within days, if not hours, of taking the military base and airfield at Severe which would make the planned September ECOWAS deployment and counteroffensive all but impossible. If nothing was done the Islamists could very well have occupied all of Mali and declared an Islamic republic. The French reacted with what they had in the area. Several hundred troops were deployed to Bamako from N'Djamena, Chad (1,400 miles) and Senegal (500 miles). Ostensibly this was to protect the 6,000 French nationals in Mali. I believe the purpose of this force was to stabilize the political situation in Bamako. They did not want to run the risk of another military coup d'etat and the further international paralysis that would follow. Fighter bombers flew from N'Djamena with the help of tankers to attack the Islamist forces threatening Mopti. Gazelle helicopters armed with 20mm cannon and HOT missiles flew from Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso (225 miles). These Gazelles were part of the 4th Special Forces Helicopter Regiment, a unit equivalent to our 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.
This did the trick. The Islamist offensive was stopped and the dilly-dallying over the deployment of the ECOWAS force has ended. The Malian forces have finally tasted a victory and have received a much needed morale boost. The task is far from over. The French discovered that the Islamist forces are far more formidable than they first thought. I believe that's why they have expanded their air attacks. They know the Salafist Islamist forces must be degraded if there is any chance of them being defeated by ECOWAS and Malian forces.
There is one thing that I am convinced must happen if the Salafist Islamist forces are to be defeated in Mali. The Tuaregs must be accepted as full partners. Azawad autonomy in some form must be accepted and the Tuaregs, including the MNLA, must be allowed to take the lead in administering and securing their own lands. I would advise the Malian government to ask the Tuaregs to administer and defend any part of Azawad that is liberated be it Timbuktu, Gao or both. That would be the ultimate expression of système D.