British troops in Mali – What will the situation be like for them on the ground?
With soldiers from the British Army being sent to the west African frontline in December, and with numerous French troops having been killed there this year already, what will our troops face on deployment?
2 Royal Anglian – an infantry battalion based in Rutland – and the Light Dragoons Regiment – an armoured unit based in North Yorkshire – will be sending their troops to the west African ‘sahel’, a huge area of land which stretches to the Sahara Desert in the north to the Sudanian Savanna to the south.
The focus of the troops will be in the country of Mali, which has been the epicentre of Islamic extremism for the last decade as a fallout of the Libyan conflict which roused Islamic fighters all across the region.
The semi-arid climate and vegetation has been wrought with danger, with killings and kidnappings common and whole villages being wiped out.
The French have been fighting here since 2012, mainly against the Ansar Dine, a paramilitary terrorist group of insurgents based in Northern Mali but operating throughout the country to impose Sharia law.
The group were born out of the NATO destabilization of Libya in 2011.
Op Serval was carried out from 2012 to 2015 with French units, including those from the French Foreign Legion, and was mainly served to oust the Ansar Dine from northern Mali.
Over the course of the three years, 5100 French troops alongside 2900 African troops from various countries fought an enemy ten thousand strong with heavy casualties on all sides.
The French army and Foreign Legion even pulled troops out of Afghanistan to fight in the operation.
10 French servicemen were killed and 143 servicemen from the African-led nations were also killed – 82 being troops from Mali.
On the enemy side, between 600 and 1000 were estimated to be killed, with 50 vehicles destroyed, 150 tons of ammunitions and 200 weapons seized, and 60 IEDs defused.
The French declared it a success as three of the top Islamic leaders of the area, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, Abdel Krim and Omar Ould Hamaha, were all killed in the fighting.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the intervention in a phone call with French President François Hollande as “a brave step against extremist Islamic terrorism” whilst Egypt’s former President Mohammed Morsi criticized France’s intervention.
After the dust settled of Op Serval, Operation Barkhane – which the Royal Anglians and Light Dragoons will embark on – began and has been ongoing since.
The operation is lead in cooperation with five countries, and former French colonies, that span the Sahel: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. These countries are collectively referred to as the “G5 Sahel” and the French are headquartered in Chad’s capital N’Djamena.
At the start of the operation in 2015, French and Nigerien forces carried out an airborne operation in the far north of Niger to search for Jihadists. As part of the operation, 90 French Foreign Legion paratroopers of the 2e REP jumped near the Salvador pass.
An French Air Parachute Commando died after being hit by an anti-tank mine.
However, the fighting has still been centred further south around the Sahel Islamist region of Mali where British troops will deploy.
They will join 5,100 French troops and Legionnaires, and around 200 soldiers from Danish and Estonian units.
The British already has roughly 90 servicemen and women in Mali from RAF Odiham who have been deployed there since 2018 with three Chinooks to assist in operations, clocking up more than 2,000 flying hours in the last two years.
Recently, forces deployed on the mission killed the leader of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, as well as other high-profile members of the group.
Minister for the Armed Forces James Heappey said combatting extremism in the Sahel is “vital” for the safety of the wider region, describing it as a “declining security situation”.
However, Op Barkhane has come at a cost with 37 deaths on the French side and numerous casualities between them and the Estonians ranking into the hundreds.
IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) are a big danger witha Foreign Legionnaire being killed by a blast just this April.
The Ukrainian-born Legionnaire of the 1st Foreign Cavalry Regiment, named as Dmytro Martynyouk, 28, succumbed to his wounds whilst on patrol in his tanker truck in central Mali.
His death are the result of an endless effort led by France to stop a region on Europe’s doorstep becoming a launchpad for attacks at home are increasingly trapped in an endless cat-and-mouse game with well-armed jihadists, who know the terrain and hide easily among civilians.
“We have a dogged adversary, who is tough, drawing from a breeding ground that is favourable to him because the population is isolated,” said Colonel Nicolas James, Commander of Desert Tactical Croup Belleface, from his base in Gao near the border with Niger and Burkino Faso.
The terrain will remind Op Herrick veterans of Helmand, with vast green valleys that lie along the River Niger, with desert areas and a scarce populace wrought with hidden dangers.
The weather can vary too, with a hot desert-like aridness and then sudden torrential rain that bring about flash floods, conditions training on Salisbury Plain won’t prepare soldiers and troops from The Royal Anglians and Light Dragoons for.
The UK is also one of the largest humanitarian donors to the region, contributing more than £500 million, and sending troops over as ‘peace keepers’ is possibly Downing Street wanting to see their investment through, but who knows at what cost?
The two units were meant to deploy sooner but have had to postpone due to the coronavirus pandemic which halted preparations.