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.
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.
Chad's military has fully internalized this type of warfare, deploying swarms of small, mobile units themselves, often consisting of little more than a handful of soldiers in Toyota pickups modified into fighting vehicles.
“These guys [the Chadians] are like the jihadis in terms of their ability to cover ground and to project force in all directions,” says Heisbourg. “They can cover 500 kilometers (about 300 miles) in a day and they have never stopped doing this,” he continues, alluding to the fact that Chadian forces have been engaged in fighting, both at home and abroad, for much of the nation’s history.
“They have been doing this sort of stuff off and on for the last 45 years, since the late '60s, sometimes with the French, sometimes against the French,” Heisbourg says.
“Remember, these guys actually conducted a major raid into Libya in the 1980s, capturing what was the most modern Soviet hardware at the time from a very capable Libyan force,” Heisbourg continues, in reference to the series of conflicts between Chad and Libya for much of the 1980s.
Concerns about abuses
While the Chadian Army’s résumé demonstrates a capacity to carry out sustained desert combat, its reputation for indiscipline and human rights abuses is just as noteworthy, however.
Instances of targeting of civilians, systemic sexual violence, recruitment of child soldiers, and a litany of other abuses against local populations have been documented by organizations such as Human Rights Watch. That record has led many to question whether Chad can be considered an effective partner for securing Mali in the long term.
"It depends how you define effective," says Rudy Atallah, who served as Africa Counterterrorism director in the office of the US Secretary of Defense in Washington. "In terms of aggressive team players supporting the French, they are doing a great job. If the definition is based purely on capability to continue the fight on their own, I don't think they can survive."
Mr. Atallah, who has extensive experience in West and North Africa, urged caution against overestimating the ability of Chad's troops operating solo. "Chadian troops are a blunt edge and good scouts for the French, but they couldn't be as effective without French intel, guidance, and air power."