12/20/2012 15:13 GMT
BAMAKO, Dec 20, 2012 (AFP) - The UN Security Council is expected to vote Thursday on plans for an African-led military intervention to chase out Islamist groups that have been in control of northern Mali for months, an operation some analysts warn is doomed to fail.
West African nations want to send a 3,300-troop force to reclaim the north, where Al-Qaeda-linked groups took advantage of the power vacuum created by a March military coup in Bamako, moving into the vast desert area and rolling out strict Islamic law.
France, Mali's former colonial ruler and a permanent Security Council member, will introduce a resolution that would approve deploying troops in stages and without a specific timeline, diplomats said.
The Islamist takeover in Mali has raised fears Al-Qaeda-linked groups could use the territory as a base for attacks on Europe and the region, drawing regional and international calls for armed intervention.
But key players including the United States and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon have voiced reservations about the wisdom of the West African military plan for Mali, once one of the most stable West African democracies.
Ban has urged the region to keep pursuing peace talks first, and the UN special envoy for West Africa, Romano Prodi, has said the force would not be operational until September 2013.
Analysts say the intervention plan could be doomed to failure because of insufficient means and the Islamists' guerrilla strategy and their familiarity with the terrain -- meaning the foreign soldiers could swiftly find themselves bogged down.
"It is likely that (the Islamists) will avoid direct confrontation, in which case (the intervention force) would have no chance," a senior French officer told AFP on condition of anonymity.
"If the force sent to deal with them is credible, (the Islamists) will certainly leave the towns and head for their sanctuaries in the mountain ranges close to the Algerian border... and that will become a different ball game to dislodge them."
"The prospects are not brilliant," added a former intelligence chief, who also asked to remain anonymous.
"(The Islamists) will withdraw, take shelter in the mountains and attack later, when we're not expecting it, in small groups that strike and quickly withdraw. That's the basics of guerrilla warfare."
The plans for a military force, originally hammered out by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), have been in hand for months, and would not involve direct intervention by Western forces.
The Security Council is expected to back the French resolution, though the United Nations has been lukewarm toward African requests for permission to go ahead.
"If we really want to eradicate the problem, we would have to use African and Western forces and lock down the borders -- you realise what a job that would be -- and sweep the whole terrain," the former intelligence chief said.
"It's not 3,000 men that are needed, it's 100 times as many, and for a long time. We are far from what's required. Take Afghanistan as a reference and you'll understand."
Up against a military force, the fighters of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) are bound to leave occupied towns, analysts said.
But to engage the retreating columns, air strikes would be needed.
"The problem is that, at least for now, the means to strike columns by air don't exist," the senior army officer said.
"The French army doesn't have such means in the region and the nearest American armed drones are in Djibouti, which is out of range. They have to be closer to the theatre of operations, but that's not on the agenda for the moment."
In a recent speech in Washington, General Carter Ham, head of the US Africa Command, acknowledged the ECOWAS force may not be ready for the task at hand, saying it has mainly been equipped and trained for peacekeeping missions, not the type of operation required in Mali.
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