The combination of western advance and rebel retreat in northern Mali echoes the initial phase of the anti-Taliban campaign in Afghanistan. Britain's upgraded military commitment makes the parallel even more acute.
France's military operation to take control of the last main towns in what was rebel-held northern Mali is in effect complete after the reported entry into Kidal early on 31 January 2013, with a sudden dust-storm creating more of a delay than any armed resistance by the retreating Islamists.
A striking feature of the campaign so far is that several elements - the speed of the French advance, the minimal amount of actual fighting, the way that the paramilitaries have melted away rather than engaged - are (albeit on a much smaller scale) uncannily reminiscent of the early stages of the anti-Taliban operation in November 2001.
Then too, the Taliban chose to withdraw in face of attacks by the United States air-force and its domestic enemies in the empowered Northern Alliance. At the time it seemed a victory for western intervention, though over the the following years it became clear that the Taliban was capable of regrouping - to the point where it could maintain its insurgency over the next decade, even when the number of western troops was close to 140,000.
Will the parallels, however, continue to hold? Much of the answer depends on the decisions made by western states in the coming period, in particular the balance they make between military and diplomatic considerations.
France's immediate aim is to reduce the scale of its intervention and transfer responsibility to the Malian army and regional forces, which will have been trained and supported by European Union military personnel. This, though, is not a realistic expectation in the short term. Just before the intervention began, Europe's training-schedule for the Malian military had an estimated span of twelve-to-fifteen months (a factor illustrated by the way that some Malian units have behaved with appalling ill-discipline as they moved into the north). Moreover, none of the surrounding states can offer competent forces any time soon (Chad possibly excepted).
in addition, many of the rebels remain within Mali, while others are just across the country's borders in Mauretania and Niger (and perhaps Algeria). They will be very difficult to dislodge, and might fairly quickly regain influence and even a measure of control over parts of the vast region. A larger-scale deployment of western (including French) forces could prevent this, though in turn that would need to overcome domestic political opposition: the British prime minister David Cameron’s talk of an "existential" threat has had little impact, and even his government's announcement of the provision of training units was greeted with frosty warnings of “mission creep”.
There is thus a core ambiguity in the western position. The major states are reluctant to get involved on the ground in direct combat, yet their military planners know that their Malian and west African allies are for the foresseable future incapable of maintaining control in an insecure region.
An obvious exit from this dilemma would be to put every effort into negotiations with the rebels, including serious offers to meet the legitimate complaints of many inhabitants of northern Mali (especially Tuareg) about their past treatment, persistent marginalisation, and aspirations for autonomy. The difficulty here is accentuated by the Malian army’s recent actions and the increasing anti-Tuareg mood in Bamako. It is also sharpened by clear signs (if so far little-noticed in polite circles) that some western states - not only the French - are preparing for counterinsurgency operations.
The United States's reported plan to establish an additional operating facility for drones, most likely in neighbouring Niger, is one indicator here (see Eric Schmitt, “U.S. plans drone base in Africa’s northwest”, New York Times, 29 January 2013). But even more significant is the British deployment of special forces that (alongside their French and American equivalents) is already underway - despite the much-repeated official line that Britain will not embrace a combat role in Mali.
The ministry of defence (MoD) in London says that 330 service personnel are being despatched to west Africa: forty to help train Mali's army, 200 in a similar role in other west African states, twenty to support a C-17 Globemaster transport aircraft, and the remaining seventy operating in a Sentinel R1, described as an "intelligence aircraft". All these personnel, the MoD says, will be in a "non-combat" capacity; yet where the Sentinel is concerned that really is stretching the use of the term.
The RAF's Sentinel R1 is a battlefield and ground-surveillance aircraft based on Canada's Bombardier Global Express, a large business jet airframe heavily adapted by the US defence company Raytheon. The RAF's five-strong stock is normally based at RAF Waddington, near Lincoln in eastern England. The core of its capabilities is the Airborne Stand-Off Radar (Astor) system), including sideways-looking Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) and Ground Moving Target Indicator (GMTI). It is, in other words, a singularly powerful spy system for identifying and tracking targets on the ground.
The Sentinel R1 as currently deployed is a joint RAF/army project. Each aircraft when on patrol has two RAF pilots, an RAF mission commander, and two image analysts (from either the RAF or the army's intelligence corps) operating the SAR/GMTI systems. It has an endurance capacity of up to fourteen hours, typically at an altitude of 13,000 metres; the complexity of the model and its mobile-ground stations mean that a single plane with five crew requires around seventy personnel to support an overseas deployment.
The Sentinel/Astor combination was originally intended to focus on large-scale conventional conflicts; indeed, the motivators for its acquisition included Britain's deficiency in this area during the early period of the war in Iraq in 2003-04. But since it entered service with the RAF in 2008, it has been used mainly in a counterinsurgency role in Afghanistan (from 2010), and in supporting Nato airstrikes in the volatile operatio in Libya in 2011 (where its contribution was reportedly "crucial").
At the time of writing, just one Sentinel is deployed to west Africa, though the deployment of a second is very likely. Its primary mission will be to range widely over sparsely populated parts of north-central Mali in order to track rebel units (whether static or mobile). If considered a threat, the latter can then be attacked - either by strike-aircraft, helicopter-gunships or special forces.
The sort of “intelligence” the Sentinel is designed to gather, and the way its use has developed beyond conventional warfare, are what make the “non-combat” description so tenuous. In practice, then, western strategists are already focusing their efforts on a planned military escalation in Mali. At least as far as Britain's government is concerned, “mission creep” is even now a fact on the ground. If negotiations are to be encouraged and a lengthy counterinsurgency war avoided, time is already short.