Fearing terror threat, US goes back to basics in Mali

In scorching midday heat, a squadron of African soldiers advances stealthily through the brush. Suddenly, the point man in the centre raises his hand to signal a halt.

That’s where the first problems become apparent. Most of the men take cover, correctly, behind trees and thorn bushes.
But two lie on the ground right in the open—sitting ducks for enemy fire.

A United States special forces soldier, supervising this training session in basic infantry tactics, runs up and prods them to crawl to a protected position. Another American gently reminds one of the soldiers to aim correctly through his rifle sights.

It’s simple stuff, and improvisation is the name of the game as the US military elite brings its skills and know-how to Mali, one of the world’s poorest countries.

As neither the Americans nor the Malians have blanks for the locals’ Russian-made AK-47 rifles, they have to simulate gunfire by shouting ‘Pow! Pow! Pow!’

At one point, a small dog and a group of goats have to be chased from the training range.

After several attempts at the exercise—advancing and then withdrawing under fire—the Malians are improving both their troop coordination and their communication with each other, even if there are a few language problems with their trainers.

“Si l’ennemi tire a vous - yell! [If the enemy’s firing at you—yell!],” says a US instructor, lapsing from basic French into English. “With all the shooting going on, you have to shout very loudly!”

The Malians seem impressed with their teachers. “It’s very exciting. They’re rigorous—they insist you do it right.,” said senior sergeant Ibrahim El Toure, training for the fourth time with US troops.

Al-Qaeda foothold

Worried about the possibility al-Qaeda could gain a foothold in Western and Northern Africa, Washington began counter-terrorism training in Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Chad in 2002.

The programme has spread to nine countries and is now known as the Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Partnership (TSCTP), with an expected budget of about $600-million for the next five to seven years .

Lessons have been learned along the way. Having issued local troops at the start with basic kit such as boots and water bottles, the Americans were frustrated to come back two years later to find much of it had disappeared, presumed sold.

“You come back after two years and how many of these people do you think are still in the unit, how many of them still have the uniforms, how many still have the boots? The answer is not too many,” said a US Special Forces commander.

Not only that, but “nobody remembers which end of the rifle the bullet comes out of,” he said, exaggerating to make a point. “We found their readiness to have decayed.”

Drawing on that experience, the Americans have boosted funding for the TSCTP and are aiming to make their training more regular and consistent. The 10-man special forces group in Gao has spent about six months here in the course of four trips over the last year, and is one of four training teams currently in Mali.

Some of the soldiers have seen action in Iraq, Afghanistan or other hotspots, and find the African assignments relaxing by comparison.

“There’s no tension here, it’s low stress. I would say Iraq is a combat zone and this is [about] preventing a combat zone,” says an assistant detachment commander who took part in the invasion of Iraq and who, like other US special forces, cannot be identified by name.

The main concern is the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), a group which has allied itself with al-Qaeda and recently stepped up its attacks on Algerian government targets, as well as clashing with nomadic Tuareg fighters in northern Mali.

Some critics accuse Washington of exaggerating the terrorist threat in the region to justify an increased security presence in Africa as it aims to source more of its oil from the continent instead of from the volatile Middle East.

But the Malian regional commander here is happy to accept the US training and buy into the rationale for it.

“The war on terrorism is our problem too,” says Lieutenant-Colonel Brehima Haidara. “The fight against terrorism is on a global scale. We don’t consider it a US problem.” - Reuters

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