Chad emerges as regional superpower in Mali conflict
N’DJAMENA (AFP) – Claiming to have killed two Islamist leaders in the Mali conflict so far, Chad is emerging as a regional superpower whose strong army is brushing up the image of what was once most known as one of the world’s poorest nations.
“Since a few years, Chad has tried to position itself as a regional power and it does so pretty well,” a Western source said.
Chad, which between 2005 and 2010 was wrought with its own civil war, has shown few signs of its troubled past since joining the French-led offensive in Mali. Since January, it has deployed more than 2,000 troops, positioned at the forefront in the hunt for Al-Qaeda-linked fighters hiding in the Ifoghas mountains.
Since peace set in in the desert nation three years ago, Chad has managed to forge new diplomatic relations with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), its western neighbour Nigeria as well as with the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD).
While ECOWAS — to which Chad does not belong — is slowly despatching 6,000 troops to Mali, Chad was quick to respond to Mali’s call for back-up, showcasing one of the fastest international deployments.
Since France came to his aid to push back border-region rebels that tried to overthrow him five years ago, President Idriss Deby Itno has since spent his energy on reorganising and modernising the Chadian army, which has grown strong in both power and know-how.
“Chadian fighters know this type of relief well and have a mobility and a hardiness that suit (this situation) well,” defence expert Pascal Le Pautremat said. He added that the methods used by Chadian troops can be compared with that of Islamist paramilitaries.
But some military sources say that although Chadian soldiers may have been known for their courage and discipline in the past, their experience has not necessarily prepared them for the craggy terrains of the Ifoghas mountains.
A high African security official minimised the role Chad’s army is playing in Mali. They “can’t do anything without the French… Chad deployed 2,000 men very quickly and now they suffer logistical problems. They have a hard time coordinating with the French — these two armies are very different.”
Although France has so far suffered relatively few casualties during its operations in Mali, Chad has lost as many as 27 of its soldiers.
At home, it is therefore essential for Idriss Deby’s to defend the efficiency of his army. “If he is calling those that have died martyrs, promising monuments and vowing to provide for their families, it is because he knows he has to justify the losses,” a high-rank Chadian official said.
Up until now, the Chadian opposition have supported the intervention in Mali, but have begun “wondering” about the absence of Malian soldiers next to the Chadians.
But the general opinion seems to be in favour of the operation.
“Chad’s intervention in northern Mali is legitimate because terrorists don’t have borders,” Mariam Ayono said, a 35-year-old shopkeeper. “Chad, which borders with Niger, Nigeria and Libya, is exposed.”
But some Chadians are less positive. “What interest do we have in sending our brothers to northern Mali when the West Africans aren’t doing anything. What does Chad get in return? Nothing,” Aldom Simplice said, a 53-year-old doctor. “We’ve had years of war. That’s enough.”
If the reported deaths of leading Islamist militants Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Abdelhamid Abou Zeid are confirmed however, Chad will be credited with having eliminated the Sahel region’s two historical Al-Qaeda leaders and decapitated the Islamist insurgency in Mali.
Abou Zeid led the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Belmokhtar was the one-eyed Islamist leader who masterminded an assault on an Algerian gas plant in January that left 37 foreign hostages dead.
A confirmation of Chad’s claims would be a definite feather in the cap for Idriss Deby who will be able to portray himself as an African shield against radical Islamism and whose country will be able to profit from favourable diplomacy and inevitable Western funding.
Foreign governments have reacted cautiously to the reports of the two Islamists’ deaths and have not confirmed them.