This post is an update on the summary of news items on the fighting in northwestern Mali between the Mauritanian and Malian militaries and AQIM. It includes thoughts on the impact of Mauritanian operations in Mali on relations between the president and the military and comparisons of official, media and individual accounts of the fighting and its outcome.
- Official and General Accounting. The Mauritanian military issued a statement claiming two dead and seven wounded soldiers, fifteen dead AQIM fighters (no number was available for the wounded) and nine AQIM men taken prisoner, of whom eight were Mauritanians (the nationality of the remainder is not mentioned). (Here and here.) Mauritanian and Malian media reports continue offer contradictory accounts of the fighting and the casualty accounts, some higher than the Mauritanians’ official count. The degree of Malian involvement is also disputed: the Mauritanian statement says “the operation was conducted jointly with the Malian Army” while both Mauritanian and Malian narrative accounts, citing military and civilian sources/accounts say the Malians hesitated to fight, did not fight at all or were engaged through most of or only the later stages of the fighting (some even say they were not in the Forest at all; most accounts say they joined at some point after the hostilities began and contributed to actual combat in some capacity). Mauritanian sources close to the military characterize the initial fighting as an ambush, which was reported in some newspapers (the military, obviously, would have incentive to deflate injuries and deaths on its own side and inflate enemy casualties for reasons of morale and prestige). Later reports have emphasized the aerial component discussed in reports from the mid/late-stages of the fighting. Official and reports relying on them make seldom mention of the twelve of seventeen Mauritanian Army trucks other reports say were destroyed in the battle. Most reports cite the same source in the Mauritanian Army staff (unnamed) with respect to the alleged camp having possessed heavy weapons to include and anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, though what kind, quality and origin remains to be revealed (early reports, mentioned in the previous post, claim they were brought to the area from Libya). Nearly all reference the explosion of an anti-vehicle mine as having killed the first Mauritanians, regardless of the final number of casualties they report.
- Military Casualties and Morale, Politics. A number of Mauritanian sources suspect Defense Ministry blackout is intended to conceal high casualty reports than those issued in official statements, some of which have been reported to the media by anonymous Malian and Mauritanian sources. This reflects sentiments that circulated following the autumn 2010 fighting in northern Mali, when the government put an effective gag order on personnel and announced casualty and death reports slowly in hopes of helping morale within the military and the public. CRIDEM quotes Isselmou Ould Salihi as saying the operation was a success due to the number of casualties on AQIM’s side, the number of prisoners taken, materiel destroyed and the “small amount of damage done to the Mauritanian side, judging by the small number of wounded soldiers at the military hospital” in Nouakchott. (Here.) Previous engagements with AQIM have come with high casualties and damaged morale, potentially threatening the president’s position with the military. The President’s absence (in South Africa) during recent hostilities would in this context also be problematic, given reports in local media that his chiefs faced a momentary crisis of command. During previous encounters with AQIM the president personally oversaw the fighting from the capital which in the eyes of field commanders gives him a kind of direct responsibility for the outcomes of these operations. The president has been popular with the military in recent months (he benefits from being a former general and commander of the elite BASEP unit), though junior officers are increasingly eager for updated hardware and those in elite units are particularly eager for combat experience whereas the military on the whole is weary of casualties (it is doubtful the military views recent campaigns as great humiliations worthy of political action against the president). The president is said to be seeking out new hardware to help satisfy younger officers, who are more exposed to direct combat than their superiors (and thus also more likely to be casualties), and boost morale in general (perhaps from China). Mauritanian opposition parties and figures have generally been supportive of operations against AQIM, though with reservations over deploying troops into Mali. Ahmed Ould Daddah of the RFD criticized the President for his absence during the beginning of the fighting and Saleh Ould Hanena (whose party recently left an alliance with the President’s UFP party) criticized the use of Mauritanian troops across the border in Mali. Tawassoul, the Mauritanian Muslim Brotherhood, issued a statement expressing solidarity with the Army (while criticizing “unilateral” operations against AQIM), as it has done after previous engagements with AQIM in hopes of avoiding association with the terrorist group, as an Islamist party whose members were historically persecuted as a result of accusations of affiliation with “terrorists”. (Here, here and here.)
- Re: newspaper reports. The reporting in Mauritanian, Malian and international media outlets provide widely different accounts of the fighting itself and body counts. It is possible the actual number of wounded/dead Mauritanians is higher than the official count and just as possible that the number of dead AQIM fighters is higher than the government-reported fifteen (though reports quoting locals refer to nearly twenty bodies being ferried off in AQIM flatbeds, some of which were still alive, indicating that some of their men probably have died or are dying away from the scene of the fighting; that some fled the scene is not mentioned in official accounts or accounts from media and individual sources close to the military; five AQIM men are said to have escaped according to a more recent report, here.). These reports still do not reveal a clear timeline for the fighting or casualties. Recent reports, citing Malian military and civilian sources, say the Malians provided support for the Mauritanians after the initial fighting began and put the number of wounded Mauritanians at ten men. The same report claims the Malians arrested nine men in the Wagadou, of whom six were Mauritanians and, citing a “source close to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb,” that there was “no record” by AQIM’s count, of any deaths on their side. (Here.) (Obviously such a source would have incentive to inflate the number of Mauritanian military casualties and deflate or obscure the number of AQIM casualties.). Another report cites a military source as claiming the Mauritanian military killed fifteen AQIM fighters and that the men inside the Wagadou Forest had “sophisticated weapons, including anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles.” (Here, here.) Another report cites a Malian newspaper (Republicain) as saying the camp in Wagadou Forest was used to train new recruits from Nigeria, though other reports to this effect are sparse elsewhere. (Here.)