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Mali: Chasing the desert sands

Posted on Tuesday, 11 May 2010 11:21

The US is helping its West African partners to fight the

influence of Al Qaida-affiliated groups by providing specialised

training and intelligence

On the main road into the town of Timbuktu, on the edge of the Sahara desert in northern Mali, there is a house that stands out from the ?others in the sandy streets. It is a fairly normal looking two-storey building, but the barbed wire and security cameras give the game away. Everybody in Timbuktu knows what this house is used for. It is where US military personnel stay when they are in town.?The US military is involved in all sorts of ways in Mali. The official rationale for the interest is that it wants to help build the capacity of the ?Malian army to improve regional ?security.

The US is also worried that Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) operates in the uncontrolled desert expanse in the north of Mali. These militants have kidnapped Western hostages, carried out bombings in ?Algeria and Mauritania, and are thought to be behind the murder of a US citizen in Nouakchott last year.

“I think that security is a consistent concern here,” says the US Ambassador in Bamako, Gillian Milovanovic. “Our entire policy is that Mali itself be ?enabled to gain the capacity to handle its problems.” The Malian authorities are struggling to cope with an upsurge in kidnappings across the Sahara, and in February the Bamako government released four AQIM prisoners in the hope of gaining the freedom of French citizen Pierre Camatte.

Threat assessment?

US African Command leader ?William ‘Kip’ Ward tells The Africa ?Report that “Al Qaida has said that their motive is to stop the world from living the way it lives. We see it in Africa, we can see that with Al Qaida in the ?Islamic Maghreb, with the kidnappings that they’ve claimed to have done.”?

One of the main ways that the US military is present in Mali is through training by US special operations personnel as part of the US government’s Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership. Small teams of US forces, usually of about 10 to 14, come to train Malian troops to operate in the north of the country. Around 10 of these training sessions take place every year, with around 30 Malian troops taking part in each session. The topics taught vary from basic marksmanship to search and rescue operations. Unlike training offered by other countries, much of the US training takes place in the north, in towns like Gao and Timbuktu.

Lieutenant Colonel Chris Call, who helps oversee the US military cooperation in the Sahara region, says that military engagement in the zone is long term. He is planning in terms of decades. “The terrorist threat is well-trained and in many cases better equipped than some of the troops here. That’s a huge problem. It’s a big challenge. The Malians have a good amount of training and equipping to do to get to where they can operate effectively against Al Qaida in the ?Islamic Maghreb.”?

The US also helps with military equipment. At the end of last year, the US handed over more than 40 four-wheel- drive vehicles, plus communications equipment and supplies to help Malian forces move and communicate easily.

The total value of the donation was around $5m. The Malian government is pleased to have the help. At the ceremony when the vehicles were handed over in October 2009, Defence Minister Natié Plea thanked the US warmly and was at pains to point out that the equipment would be used in just the way the Americans want. “I want to assure you,” he said, “that the Malian armed forces will use this equipment in the best possible way in their mission to fight against insecurity in all its forms.”?

The American help is well-regarded because it comes without the historical baggage attached to French aid.Malian officials sometimes see France, the former colonial power, as an overbearing partner.

There are other less well-publicised links. The US provides Mali with intelligence gathered using satellites and communications-monitoring equipment. It has also been involved on a more operational level in the past. The US does not like to announce how often it assists Malian troops engaged in active combat: In 2007, Tuareg rebels fired on a US military aircraft dropping provisions to Malian troops during a battle in the north.

The Malian army still has a big job to do itself. “The support from an important country like the US really helps keep the Malian government motivated to confront the security challenges that they face,” says Ahmada Ag Bibi, a former Tuareg rebel who is now a parliamentarian. “But the Malian army needs to be more present on the ground in the north.” ?

The Malians are not naïve when it comes to US interests beyond security. There have been a number of reports of oil deposits in the north, and one source in the defence ministry says they are under no illusion that this has escaped the US. “Of course the Americans have other interests here. That’s the way the world works. But for the moment, they are an important partner. We’re happy to take the help they offer.”

This article was first published in The Africa Report’s April-May 2010 edition.

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