2013/02/25

One more reason to read much military history

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Many people tend to be very much influenced by recent examples (such as the wars of the last couple years) when trying to anticipate the course of an unfolding event.

Examples:
The German military leadership was optimistic about being able to win on the Western Front with the troops which returned from the Eastern Front. After all, one such offensive with great reinforcements had broken the Italian army only months before.
The Japanese military leadership of the 1930's believed a war in China couldn't go wrong. After all, China had been a pushover in face of small European army forces for a century and Japan had already proved being equal to Europeans when it defeated the Russians a generation ago.
Media folks expected lots of losses in 1990 because of the Vietnam War experience, but the eventual war in '91 was a rather one-sided affair.

The conflict in Mali led to the same pattern: There was no shortage of articles predicting the French would run into great difficulties. Conspicuously, the expected difficulties mirrored the ones encountered in Afghanistan.

This is part of why military history is so important and so valuable. It enables one to base experiences on hundreds of diverse conflicts instead of expecting a mirror image of the last few conflicts.
The quite embarrassing articles predicting a quagmire in Mali (for the French) exposed the weak background knowledge base of their authors in my opinion.


Now why did Mali not turn into such a mess? For starters, the French are not stupid. It would have been stupid to repeat the 'overrun+occupy' mess of Afghanistan. They stuck with the 'overrun' part.
The French army was never truly geared towards huge conventional warfare between great powers post-1945. The French are serious about having nukes, provide a fig leaf of conventional forces (albeit much of the time not submitted to NATO command) and they were serious about having intervention forces. The latter were and are built on a model resembling armoured reconnaissance or 'cavalry' troops; equipped with lots of well-armed wheeled thinly armoured vehicles. The "well-armed" part is not so much about anti-tank firepower as it is about having good guns (90 or 105 mm) on top of many of those vehicles. It's almost the perfect force for overrunning low quality, low organisation, low cohesion forces in most of Africa.*

I think it was predictable that they could rout the opposition quite easily, comparable to how the British routed the Italian army in the North African desert in 1940.
I also think it should have been easily known that the opposition in Mali was from a minority group from the North of the country and would not be elusive amongst the largely hostile (to them) population of the South. Those marauder-mercs would not be guerrillas in the South, but an alien motorised force just as the French.
If anything, the disintegration of the Taliban by desertion in 2001 should have been used as a template for Mali expectations.


I hope the Op-Ed authors won't pick up this Mali experience and use it to predict the next foolish small war will be a quick and easy strike, too. It may be fundamentally different.

S Ortmann

*: The addition of much artillery salvo firepower would make it perfect, but the French substituted for it with air strikes.
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2 comments:

  1. "If anything, the disintegration of the Taliban by desertion in 2001 should have been used as a template for Mali expectations."

    For the start, certainly, but, The Pashtuns are the majority in only the central belt, yet they have had little trouble dominating Afghanistan.

    The Malian Rebels cant hold all of Mali against the French, yet they can survive in their areas. A few weeks after the French leave, the rebels will return. The AU, the Malian Army or the UN wont be able to keep them out.
    And so we are faced with an Afghanistan style quagmire.

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  2. They will return - after a decade or so.
    For now they know they'll get beaten up if they return. Besides, they have plundered enough wealth from the south for a while.

    You underestimate the AU troops. They're African troops, but not substantially more inept than the troublemakers in Mali.

    Most importantly: "We" are not faced with any quagmire in Mali. It's going to be owned by the Africans and there are vested interests in favour of teaching Islamist Sahel zone groups that they cannot 'win' in the more densely populated south.

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