In October of last year, three Malian soldiers were killed by a landmine placed along their patrol route in central Mali. According to the United Nations, 42 similar incidents occurred in the same area in the summer of 2018. Since then, insurgents have spilled into central Mali from the north, undaunted by the Malian army, police, or gendarmerie.
Mali and its American allies pay little attention to regaining civilians’ trust in the government, securing rural villages, or coordinating local groups with security forces. These issues are major counterinsurgency problems, and healthy relationships between the government, its security apparati, and its civilians will be necessary to resolve them.
Unfortunately, Mali and its international partners, France and the United States, gear operations towards counterterrorism. On one hand, the French Foreign Legion uses force to support Malian army operations. On the other, the United States trains Malian soldiers in counterterrorism tactics and provides logistical support. However, there is little development of human intelligence (HUMINT) collection or of counterinsurgency operations.
Counterinsurgencies require information gathering. Mali’s gendarmerie and garde nationale are positioned to support collection efforts. Both groups are well experienced with the north’s geography and human terrain. Gendarmes act as a police force for rural areas, but are more heavily armed than conventional police forces. Garde nationale units are the north’s military force.
Civil society organizations (CSOs) inside rural villages could support a counterinsurgency mission as peacemakers and HUMINT assets. CSOs provide hyperlocal services and conflict resolution in their communities. These groups build and manage reintegration programs, social cohesion projects, and livelihood opportunities. They also provide valuable intelligence because they are close to endangered communities. Violent groups target CSO because of this intelligence role. CSO members are more vulnerable to attack because they are unarmed.
The United States could encourage communication between the gendarmerie and CSOs to reduce the threat to CSO members. A liaison system between the two groups would encourage trust and act as a warning system. Stationing a gendarmerie officer in each community would provide quick access to CSOs and a link to regional HQ.
The rural population holds the gendarmerie nationale in high regard. Northerners commonly serve inside gendarmerie units. Gendarmes are usually the fastest security forces to act, given their proximity to rural communities.
However, the gendarmes are underequipped and poorly integrated into Malian security. Malian police use the gendarmes as their rural wing, but rampant police corruption means they provide gendarmes with no support. Mali could convert to a French-style security apparatus structure and shift the gendarmerie to joint control under the military and the police. With this structure, gendarmerie intelligence could be passed directly from the gendarmerie to the military and improve targeting.
Since southerners dominate the armed forces, the military struggles in northern rural areas. Despite attempts at integration, most northerners deserted after the 2012 MNLA insurgency. The failure to integrate northerners into the military and the subsequent loss of their valuable knowledge crippled the Malian military.
The garde nationale holds the most potential to aid the Malian military. Like the gendarmerie, they are well integrated with, and respected by, northerners. Members of the garde are well trained in desert warfare, unlike the Malian military. Historically, units like the British Long Range Desert Group were attached to regular army units to provide raiding experience, knowledge of the physical and human terrain, and intelligence collection capabilities.
The garde could serve this same function for the Malian army. As both advisors and guides, garde units would work closely with Malian regulars and help them adapt to the terrain. Increased cooperation would also help eliminate the military’s intelligence gaps and integration problems.
The Malians seek conventional fights without proper equipment or tactics. The United States provides some equipment and support, as well as counterterrorism training, but this is insufficient. Instead, the United States should provide mine resistant ambush protected vehicles (MRAPs) and emphasize the importance of HUMINT provided by gendarmes and CSOs. Prioritizing enhanced mobility and endurance in the northern desert will be more effective than tanks and counterterror tactics.
This will require Mali to shift to a counterinsurgency doctrine. The United States should teach the Malian regulars what they learned in Iraq, and push for better integration of northerns, both in army recruitment and between the garde and gendarmes. In Iraq, U.S. marines and soldiers conducted day-long patrols in their neighborhoods to build visibility and trust with the local population. They also attempted to integrate tribal locals into the Iraqi Army to build political unity and human terrain knowledge.
Mali’s struggle with counterinsurgency is self inflicted. Limited communication, poor integration, and insufficient preparation hamstring its security services. Malian commanders should foster better communication between locals and security forces, develop a rapport with northerners, and refocus their strategy. The United States, with its extensive counterinsurgency experience, is well positioned to assist in these reforms at minimal cost. Concerted reform efforts, supported by U.S. knowledge and equipment, can stabilize Mali’s security.
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John Strohl is a master’s student in the Security Policy Studies program at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He studies low intensity conflict and the future of warfighting.