Chad 1983 and Mali 2013: A Comparison

By ACD ARTICLES | by J. Millard Burr
Monday, January 21st, 2013 @ 9:09PM

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The unfolding events in Mali, where a nation is threatened by an insurgency impelled by outsiders, is reminiscent of events that occurred in neighboring Chad thirty years ago.  Today, it is a local insurgency supported by Al Qaeda affiliates that is active in Mali.  Thirty years ago it was an insurgency supported by Libya’s Muamar Qaddafi and his so-called “Foreign Legion” that threatened the government of Chad. In both cases insurgencies posed a real danger to the security of Africa’s Sahel region at large.

While the United States has, at French request,  provided some transport aircraft to support French military activity in Mali, it has indicated that it will do little more.  Ironically, in 1982 it was the United States that urged the reluctant French to get involved in an insurgency in Chad.

In 1982 Libyan backed troops moved into the Bourkou-Ennedi-Tibesti (BET) region of northern Chad.   When it seemed that Chad’s troops would be unable to reverse the invasion of the well-armed troops, President Habre visited the United States and virtually begged for military assistance.

The Reagan  administration initial reaction was not to get involved in a nasty little conflict in the heart of Africa. Habre returned to Ndjamena seemingly empty handed.

However, Reagan prohibited American companies from purchasing Libyan oil.  He next began to gear-up a new unified military command to represent U.S. interests in Africa and the Middle East. Caspar Weinberger at Defense and William Casey at CIA were convinced that Libya was instrumental in state-sponsored terrorism and had to be stopped. The developments in Chad provided them with the opportunity to convince Reagan that the Libyan invasion of the BET had to be met by a swift and sure response. Washington then began to consider the use of its nascent Middle East Rapid Deployment Force . It shortly metamorphosed into USCENTCOM (United States Central Command).

In February 1983 four US AWACS aircraft were sent to Cairo in response to a Libyan attempt to stage a coup in the Sudan. Their presence was a symbol that the United States meant business, and it halted the potential of a Libyan invasion of the Sudan’s Darfur region. The United States then tried to influence French President Mitterrand to participate directly to end Qaddafi’s threat to Chad. At first, he refused.

Stung by criticism at home, and shamed by Reagan’s authorization of $25 million in military materiel for Chad, Mitterrand initiated Operation Manta, the first French operation in Africa since 1962. More than 20,000 French forces were sent to Chad, and the region became a testing ground for new military weaponry.  Still, the French would not move into the BET and were willing to allow Qaddafi’s Legion to occupy that vast region.

Quietly and effectively the Pentagon and  the CIA, with the use of U.S. Special Forces, armed Habre’s men, and hundreds of “Desert Chariots” – Toyota trucks with mounted machine guns – and light mortars made a mysterious appearance in the BET.  They destroyed Qaddafi’s force at Ounanga Kebir, and within days chased Qaddafi’s Legion from northern Chad. They never returned. The region remained quiet (except for the usual decades-old internecine ethnic battles) until Qaddafi was killed in 2012.

Now, as Qaddafi had anticipated, the Arab Islamists who were suppressed by and feared Qaddafi, are posing a growing threat to Chad, and are training Islamist recruits who will be used to destabilize the government. They already been active in the Sudan’s Darfur region.

Events in Mali seem to be hurrying the Islamist insurgency not only in Chad, but in Darfur, Niger, and northern Nigeria as well.  As France now claims it does not have sufficient troops to meet the Islamist insurgency in the Sahel, don’t be surprised if the United States AFRICOM, a spin-off from CENTCOM noted above, is soon drawn directly into battle.

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