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In Mali fight, Chad proves a powerful partner for France

Chad may be a poor country marred by frequent turmoil, but its forces have fought very effectively against Islamist rebels in northern Mali. 

By Peter TintiCorrespondent / March 7, 2013

Chadian soldiers form a line with their armored vehicles in the northeastern town of Kidal, Mali, last month.

Cheick Diouara/REUTERS

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Bamako, Mali

Weeks after the French launched their military intervention in Mali, the majority of Islamist rebels who were once in control of northern Mali’s major cities have retreated to hideouts near the Algerian border.

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But  forces from Chad have followed them, spearheading an ambitious push into northern Mali’s Ifoghas mountains, a terrain often compared to Afghanistan’s Tora Bora. And despite suffering dozens of casualties during weeks of heavy combat, Chadian forces have succeeded in killing and capturing more than 100 jihadist militants and uprooting a network of weapons caches, fuel depots, and food stuffs hidden among the countless caves and grottoes that dot the landscape. 

The string of Chadian military victories against a well-prepared and amply equipped rebel force has prompted many to wonder how Chad – a poor, landlocked country marred by decades of political turmoil and near continual civil war – has been able to contribute so effectively to this fight. 

But Chad’s ability to project power in northern Mali should come as no surprise, according to analysts who specialize in military affairs in the region.  

“This is the sort of background in which they [the Chadians] feel the most at home. This is like northern Chad, this is the desert, this is rocky terrain,” says François Heisbourg, a special adviser at the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research. “They are fully acclimatized. 100 degrees F. at noontime doesn’t scare them.”

A useful partner

With the Malian Army in disrepair, France has been eager to transfer responsibility for securing Mali over to an internationally approved African-led force. But few analysts believe that troops from regional bloc ECOWAS, the bulk of whom would come from West Africa’s sub-Saharan climes, will be able to operate effectively in northern Mali’s unforgiving desert.

The Chadians have proved to be a useful partner not only because of their decades of experience fighting in a similar climate and terrain, but because they have spent much of the past decade fighting a panoply of rebel groups in their own country, many of which preferred to operate as light and mobile units, using tactics similar to those currently employed by the jihadis in Mali.

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