Mali's army will be unable to dislodge the Islamist hold on the country's north, even with the help of fellow west African forces. This makes direct western military intervention more likely.
Mali's deepening insecurity has taken several forms over this year. The messy aftermath of a coup in Bamako in March 2012 was followed by the successive advance of Tuareg forces and Islamist militias in the north of the country, effectively dividing the west African state. The establishment of control by the Islamists has increased speculation about the possibility of external intervention to wrest back the northern region (see "Mali, and the next war", 1 November 2012).
Many reports on the intervention issue have lacked concrete information. The most reliable noted clear signals of a move to intervene, expected to involve several west African states; less certain was the extent of western involvement (which the column argued would be considerable, if covert). In the past fortnight, three regional issues offer a guide to a deeper assessment.
The regional limits
First, there is the question of whether Malian army units can be trained and equipped to win in the north. The army's strength, around 7,000 at the start of 2012, is now much diminished: largely through desertions, and because the elite paratrooper group that axted as the presidential guard was disbanded after the coup (see Jeremy Binnie & Lale Sariibrahimoglu, "Mali intervention planning intensifies", Jane's Defence Weekly, 24 October 2012).
It is doubtful that more than 3,000 troops could be prepared and deployed in the coming weeks to a level that would enable them to take over the north. Moreover, Ansar Dine and other Islamist groups are skilled at operating across the desert and could readily disrupt supply-lines to any garrison implanted in northern towns; and aerial resupply could be vulnerable to mobile anti-aircraft missiles that may have seeped into Mali from Libya.
Second, therefore, the main elements of the operation will have to be drawn from established armies in other west African states, under the auspices of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas). A force estimated at 3,000-3,500 is likely to be assembled and to operate from neighbouring countries (principally Burkina Faso, to Mali's southeast). But even this will face problems. The entire operation would be greatly aided were Algeria to be supportive, and the United States state department is making efforts to persuade Abdelaziz Bouteflika's government. Algeria seems unlikely to alter its stance, however. A security advisor of Algeria's government, Kamal Rezzag Barra, says that external intervention would not work and that instead a political solution must be found (see "Algerian official: international military intervention in northern Mali would be 'useless'", Washington Post, 10 November 2012).
True, Algeria is reportedly deploying additional troops along its 1,200-mile border with Mali, but this seems designed to ensure security and help prevent rebel militias crossing into Algeria in the wake of any intervention (see "U.S. Seeks Algeria's Support in Possible Mali Move", Time, 29 October 2012).
Third, the largest component of a west African regional-intervention force - though its exact composition is not yet clear - will probably be Nigerian, with Burkina Faso also significant. But even Abuja may send as few as 600 troops, not least because its internal-security problems include unrest in the oil-rich Niger delta and an expanding conflict with Boko Haram in Nigeria's own north (see "Al-Qaida franchise: the Nigerian case", 25 August 2011).
These three issues suggest that the region seems capable of generating a relatively small force of a few thousand, comprising six or more national military groups, that will have to be equipped and trained to operate over long distances in difficult territory, against paramilitaries adept at guerrilla tactics. In short, it won't work - even with extensive European (and especially French) military advice and supplies.
The international prospect
All this explains why it is as certain as can be that there will indeed be direct foreign involvement, on the ground (the column of two weeks ago said: "If, as is now likely, west African military action in Mali evolves in the coming weeks and months, then there will in some form be extensive western participation"). Indeed, a Nigerian source reports this week that European countries will send up to 400 special forces to operate alongside the west African troops; and that a meeting of military planners from France, Spain, Germany, Italy and Poland is working out the details of the operation (see "Europe to send 400 special forces to Mali", Punch [Lagos], 14 November 2012).
A European diplomatic source says that the troops will be in supporting roles only, with a focus on training, but this is frankly implausible. The indications are that as the military operation develops in early 2013 it will prove near-impossible to complete if dependent on the Ecowas troops assigned to it. The logical consequence will be the deployment of an expanded force with a substantial foreign input, whose responsibilities include a direct combat role, no doubt supported by both armed and reconnaissance drones (see "Remote control, a new way of war", 18 October 2012).
It is possible that in the coming weeks there will be serious attempts to negotiate with at least some of the paramilitary Islamist groups operating in northern Mali. If they are successful, a conflict might still be avoided. It is clear, though, that intensive planning for military involvement is now underway, principally in Europe. If that military option does ensue, the result will be another international conflict with western participation - albeit likely to be on a smaller scale than Libya, and much smaller than Iraq or Afghanistan.
Its significance, though, may be less its size and intensity and more its status as a further example of western intervention against an Islamic region. In itself that may have little traction even with the great majority of the world's Muslim community, but for a core minority it will have a sharp impact. The most immediate effects may be felt in west Africa, where radical Islamist movements are influential, but also in east Africa, where similar currents are evolving. The experience of such wars also shows that once started they can take alarming directions, have very destructive results, and often enhance the very movements they are designed to counter. Whether such forewarnings make any difference remains to be seen.