Mali, and remote-control war

The Afghan model of future war based on armed-drones and special-forces is being refined in Mali. But the western states there risk provoking the reaction that defeated them in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
28 February 2013

The evolving western military operation in Mali continues to offer insight into the changing nature of 21st-century war. The French campaign is proceeding in the north of the country, with Britain (as an earlier column in this series anticipated) directly involved in combat operations via its Sentinel R1 radar reconnaissance-aircraft. The Sentinel missions aid French forces as they target rebels who are seeking to regroup (see Tony Osborne, “Dodging the Ax”, Aviation Week, 18 February 2013 ). Britain's capacity here is needed by the French, who lack this kind of capability since their Horizon helicopter-based system was scrapped (and who are also finding that they are in urgent need of armed-drones).

In this regard, a hundred United States troops have set up a new base for Predator drones across the border in Niger (see Eric Schmitt & Scott Sayare, “U.S. opens new front with drone base in Niger, New York Times, 25 February 2013). The Predators - located just outside the capital, Niamey - will initially be used for reconnaissance, thus augmenting the Sentinel R1, though modified versions are readily available for weapons delivery. This is the second permanent US base in sub-Saharan Africa after Djibouti, around 5,000 kilometres to the east.

The conflict thus creates its own tendency to escalation. The French now want their own high-endurance armed-drones, a desire their own Harfang system might fill to a degree but only as a stop-gap until a much more powerful system is available. Paris's current thinking tends towards buying the US Reaper (as the British have done). This is the standard long-endurance heavily-armed drone which the US has widely used in several war-zones, and which the RAF has deployed in Afghanistan against paramilitary targets (nearly 400 times in recent years).

Any purchase by the French government of an expensive American system would be highly sensitive politically, especially when defence cuts are in the offing. Yet it is probable, on balance, that Reapers will be joining the French armed forces within two years (see Pierre Tran, “Mali Mission Spurs French Interest in Armed UAV”, Defense News, 18 February 2013).

France's embrace of such weapons is part of an accelerating worldwide trend towards remotely-operated systems, which also involve non-western states (such as Iran) and armed movements (such as Hizbollah) as well as Israel (see, for example, "An asymmetrical drone war", 19 August 2010); "Suicide-bombs without the suicides: why drones are so cool", 13 September 2012); and "Drone wars: the new blowback" [29 November 2012]).

A striking example is China's reported plan to use an armed-drone to assassinate a Myanmar drugs boss, Naw Kham, outside its own territory. In the event, the Chinese captured him, and he now awaits a death sentence following his trial. The sequence of events illustrates China's rapid development of long-range armed-drones (see Jane Perlez, “Chinese Plan to Kill Drug Dealer With Drone Highlights Military Advances” , New York Times, 20 February 2013).

A new model

Much of the concern with such new forms of “remote control” focuses on armed-drones - including among the public, especially when targeted killings are involved. In fact, though, drones are only one method by which states are seeking to maintain control via "security at a distance" - or in other ways that are below the radar of public accountability.

These include rendition accompanied by “enhanced interrogation”; new forms of rapid global strike (see Caitlin Harrington et al., "Silver bullets: US seeks conventional weapons with a global reach", Jane's International Defence Review, September 2010); privatised military companies; and special forces. The last two of these deserve a closer look.

The first, privatised military companies, have been around for centuries in the shape of mercenaries, but they have grown rapidly in number and scale in recent years; today, the privatised military industry is estimated to be worth $100 billion. The main “buyers” are governments, notably the United States; but Chinese enterprises in Africa are ready customers too. The main suppliers are American and British companies, who together command an estimated 70% of the market (see “Bullets for Hire”, Economist, 17 November 2012). Many of the staff are, in effect, private soldiers: perhaps 20,000 contracted to the US government in Iraq and Afghanistan, and far more paid for by other states, particularly in Afghanistan.

By using private military companies, western governments secure a key combination of minimum political visibility and maximum deniability as they engage in control efforts overseas. Another advantage is that governments avoid almost all the cost of casualties, since the the death of private military personnel receives little media attention.

The second method, special forces, sees the US's Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) foremost among comparable institutions worldwide. This inter-service military command was set up in 1987 after the disastrous failure of Operation Eagle Claw to rescue US hostages in Iran after the revolution. USSOCOM now has a total strength of 58,000 - more than half the size of the whole of the British army.

The British too have not been expanding their forces, the newest element being the Special Forces Support Group (SFSG), set up in 2006. This is a little-known unit that draws its personnel mainly from the 1st battalion Parachute Regiment (1 Para), together with units from the Royal Marines and the RAF regiment. The SFSG is based at St Athan in Wales, operating in the field to support the SAS and the marines' Special Boat Squadron; along with the SAS, and American and French special forces, it has recently been deployed in Mali.

Overall, governments see special forces as elite low-profile groups that operate in small numbers and avoid any kind of publicity. They are increasingly significant in Nato, where international cooperation has increased greatly (see "Remote control, a new way of war", 18 October 2012) - not least with the opening of new special-forces headqaurters at Casteau, Belgium in December (see NATO Watch, 19 February 2013).

But occasionally, the mask slips - as this week when Hamid Karzai's government in Kabul demanded that all US special forces withdraw from the strategically important Wardak province (see “Karzai orders U.S. special forces out of Afghan province”, Bloomberg, 25 February 2013). This followed claims that US units working with Afghan soldiers had allowed the latter to harass, torture and murder other Afghans, often during night raids.

The anger in Kabul means that the US may well comply, but only for a time: the United States is determined to keep several thousand troops in Afghanistan in order to prevent too great a resurgence of the Taliban. Even so, as elements of the remaining US contingent will be training the Afghan national army, the main groups will be special forces whose technical support is provided by squadrons of armed- and reconnaissance-drones.

An evolving war

Indeed, on present trends, Afghanistan is likely to be the model for future wars (see "Drone wars: the Afghan model", 14 February 2013). The notion of having 100,000 or more “boots on the ground” will be an anachronism; in its place, there will be numerous dispersed and unobtrusive operations with little or no media visibility.

But if Afghanistan is the template, it will still - with as many as 10,000 troops based there - be relatively large scale. Perhaps more typical will be Mali, which is already evolving into a bitter war, with twenty-three Chadian soldiers killed in separate incidents on 22 and 24 February 2013 (see “More Chadian soldiers killed in northern Mali, Army says”, New York Times, 25 February 2013)  French forces may well get more heavily involved, despite the Paris government's wish to scale down operations; and they will continue to be backed by US drones and UK target-acquisition aircraft, with special forces from both states. What there will not be is thousands of troops from either country.

In this respect at least, Mali is different from Iraq and Afghanistan; indeed, the "sub-model" being applied there is a consequence of the failure of these earlier operations. But the difference from the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan under occupation will go only so far. For this latest “war in the shadows” will also provoke resentment and fuel violent opposition, bringing Mali too into the evolving pattern of 21st-century conflict.

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