Despite French difficulties, the decisions among Islamist leaders to not only stand their ground but to counter-attack in border towns like Diabaly is the best of all possible outcomes. Instead of melting back to their strongholds in northern Mali to try and outlast French patience, the Islamist groups have decided to expend precious resources in pitched battles that they cannot hope to win.
The ongoing battle for Konna is a salient example of this. The city was along the Islamists central axis of advice and a critical objective for Ansar Dine and its allies and as a result a considerable amount of resources has been invested in the fight. According to reports the Islamists have brought around 1,200 militants led by a relatively famous rebel commander Iyad Ag Ghaly formerly of the MPLA. They also appear to be well equipped and well supplied, as the stymied French led advance indicates. What we can probably draw from this as that some of the best motivated and equipped troops, and one of the largest formations, is being committed to this fight.
However despite this stiff resistance the rebels have suffered between 50-120 fighters killed (including the death of Ansar Dine officer Abdel Krim) and scores wounded or captured, as well as the destruction of ammunition trucks and technical formations. These are enormous casualties. If we take the upper estimation of Islamist casualties without even considering wounded and captured fighters, it accounts for an attrition rate of 10% in less than a few days fighting. These are unsustainable casualties.
Every fighter that is lost in Konna is lost for nothing. It is inevitable that Islamist forces will be driven from the city, and indeed it is likely that fighters will be driven from most major towns and settlements they have taken. When faced with this reality a problem for these groups begins to emerge.
Guerilla groups tend to husband and marshal their human and technical resources very carefully, building up cadres of experienced fighters, and gathering the equipment and munitions necessary to continue and expand the campaign. After all if there was parity of resources and power they would not be fighting such a campaign. However when they transition to open battle and make the decision to try and seize objectives they expose themselves to heavy losses in both men and material which are often irreplaceable.
The experienced fighters, equipment, and ammunition that the rebels managed to gain from Libya and from foreign sources are not limitless, especially when subjected to the rigorous demands of a conventional military campaign. As long as Islamist fighters continue to regroup and engage in open combat they will subject themselves to eventual reversals, a prodigious expenditure of ammunition and equipment, and of course heavy losses.
While there is an obvious desire and imperative to end the human suffering in Mali as soon as possible, it may very well prove beneficial to hope Ansar Dine and its allies keep on fighting French and allied forces head on as long as possible. This is the kind of fighting where the most damage can be inflicted and the greatest chance for potentially mortal attrition to take its toll. One can only imagine what ISAF and Afghan troops would pay for the Taliban to abandon its asymmetric campaign and take to the field in the thousands. It is when the campaign turns to ambushes, IED’s, and bombings that we should be concerned.
For now? The longer the Islamists fight the more of them can be killed.
Josh Jacobs is an analyst at 361Security.