Terror Haven in Mali Feared After French Leave

 Terror Haven in Mali Feared After French Leave


Published: March 17, 2013 NEMA, Mauritania

With France planning to start withdrawing its troops from Mali next month, Western and African officials are increasingly concerned that the African soldiers who will be relied on to continue the campaign against militants linked to Al Qaeda there do not have the training or equipment for the job.

The heaviest fighting so far, which has driven the militants out of the towns and cities of northeastern Mali, has been borne by French and Chadian forces, more or less alone. Those forces are now mostly conducting patrols in the north, while troops sent by Mali’s other regional allies, including Nigeria and Senegal, have been slow to arrive and have focused on peacekeeping rather than combat, prompting grumbles from Chad’s president, Idriss Déby Itno.

The outcome of the fighting in Mali carries major implications not only for France, but also for the Obama administration, which is worried that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other militant groups could retain a smaller but enduring haven in remote mountain redoubts in the Malian desert.

To help the French, the United States began flying unarmed surveillance drones over the region last month from a new base in Niger. And the administration has spent more than $550 million over the past four years to help train and equip West African armies to fight militants so that the Pentagon would not have to. But critics contend that the United States seems to have little to show for that effort.

Turning Mali’s own fractured army into a cohesive and effective force would entail “a huge amount of work,” according to Brig. Gen. Francois Lecointre of France, who is leading the effort to retrain Mali’s Army. As if to underscore the point, a group of Malian troops briefly abandoned their posts recently and fired shots in the air to demand a deployment bonus.

Here in the southeastern corner of Mauritania, about 100 miles from the border with Mali, an exercise conducted this month by the United States military to train African armies to foil ambushes, raid militant hide-outs and win over local populations offered the administration more reasons for worry, as well as some encouraging signs.

The exercise offered a rare glimpse into the strengths and weaknesses of several of the African armies that are poised to help take over the mission in Mali. In a few weeks, the United Nations Security Council is expected to decide whether to authorize a peacekeeping force for Mali and how to compose it.

“It’s possible these troops would go to Mali,” said Lt. Col. M. Dieye of Senegal, commander of a platoon of special forces soldiers who took part. His nation, like Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso and Nigeria, joined the exercise and have also sent troops to Mali. “Now we’ve worked together with other African troops, like we would in Mali,” he said.

The French-led operation in Mali has killed scores of militants and destroyed many weapons caches, and France has said it will not withdraw until the threat from the militants is vastly diminished. Even so, some Western officials say the African troops in Mali will be up against guerrilla fighters with far more experience in desert warfare than they have.

“No amount of exercise or training in the next couple weeks or months can, in itself, prepare African forces for their new role in Mali,” said Benjamin P. Nickels, a counterterrorism specialist at the National Defense University’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies in Washington. “An ongoing commitment will be required.”

France has already delayed its withdrawal by at least a month, amid fierce fighting against a major militant stronghold. The French had some 1,200 soldiers in that battle; along with 800 troops from Chad, they have been focusing their efforts on a 15-mile zone in the Adrar des Ifoghas, the rocky, barren mountains near Mali’s border with Algeria.

The French are likely to maintain a small counterterrorism force in Mali after withdrawing most of their 4,000 troops from the country, diplomats say. The bulk of the peacekeeping duties will shift to African troops, with the growing likelihood that they will operate under a United Nations mandate.

But in a sign that Western officials are worried about whether the Africans will be up to the task, some diplomats are suggesting that the United Nations approve a heavily armed rapid-response force of up to 10,000 troops to ward off any resurgent Islamist threat in Mali. Chad, which has 2,200 soldiers in Mali and decades of experience in desert warfare, would probably supply the core of any peacekeeping mission.

The United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, is expected to submit his peacekeeping recommendations to the Security Council by the end of March, and diplomats anticipate a vote as early as mid-April.

Mali’s own army, which toppled the country’s civilian government early last year, is “very much underequipped,” said General Lecointre, who is leading the European Union mission to retrain the Malian troops beginning April 2. “It is the army of a very poor country.”

When the militants took advantage of the chaos caused by the coup to seize the northern half of the country, some Malian soldiers defected to the rebels and others fled rather than confront them. Malian soldiers who joined with French troops in January to reclaim three main northern cities from the militants have been accused in recent weeks of committing atrocities, including summary executions of suspected insurgents.

Against this backdrop, the American-led training exercise that concluded here on March 9 took on greater significance, even though it was not specifically designed to address the conflict in Mali. Annual exercises that the Pentagon calls Flintlock have been staged in northwest Africa since 2006; last year’s installment was scheduled to be held in Mali, but it was but was canceled because of the coup.

This year, more than 600 African troops and 400 Western trainers and support personnel, including about 250 Americans, trained at this dusty crossroads town, as well as in two other major towns in southern Mauritania, Kiffa and Ayoun.

For three weeks in temperatures soaring well above 100 degrees, African soldiers in groups of a dozen to two dozen teamed up with advisers from the United States or NATO allies like Spain, Italy, France or the Netherlands to practice marksmanship, patrol harsh desert terrain and resupply those patrols with airdrops.

“You have to able to shoot, you have to able to move, you have to be able to communicate, but most importantly, you have to be able to think,” said Col. George Bristol of the Marine Corps, the senior American Special Operations officer on the ground during the exercise.

If the daily training honed the Africans’ tactical skills, it also revealed weaknesses that insurgents could exploit, Western advisers said. Most African armies are small, with little money to buy modern gear, to train regularly or to set up systems to provide spare parts when equipment breaks down.

The African troops here learned to improvise with materials at hand. During one airdrop, for instance, Mauritanian soldiers used a large plastic tarpaulin as a makeshift parachute to successfully deliver supplies from a small propeller-driven airplane.

“We don’t need them to be as good as us, just better than the bad guys,” said one American officer who, under the ground rules for the exercise, would not be identified.

The training scenarios emphasized teamwork. In clear, searing weather one late afternoon, about two dozen troops in khaki camouflage uniforms, members of Mauritania’s presidential security platoon, gathered near some trees at one end of a small windswept valley. Suddenly, half the Mauritanians raced forward across open ground, firing their AK-47 rifles, while the others stayed back to provide covering fire. Then the roles reversed. Their objective was a mock militant encampment a few hundred yards down the valley, designated by several paper targets.

From a ridge above, Senegalese special forces soldiers also opened fire on the enemy camp, which in an actual raid would be intended to draw the militants’ attention away from the Mauritanians.

“Good sustained, controlled fire,” Colonel Bristol said after watching the maneuvers from a rocky hilltop.

For Mauritania, a vast, parched nation of about three million people at the western end of the Sahara that straddles the divide between largely Arab North Africa and black West Africa, playing host to this year’s exercise underscored its commitment to combat Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, diplomats and commanders said.

Since 2005, Qaeda fighters have kidnapped and murdered Western tourists, aid workers and Mauritanian soldiers in the country, and have attacked foreign diplomatic missions in Nouakchott, Mauritania’s oceanside capital.

The Mauritanian military, which has staged two coups since 2005, says it is vying with militants for the trust of the country’s civilian population. “Their main strength is their ability to lock in with local populations, spread out, and make it very hard to be pinpointed,” said Col. Mohamed Cheikh Ould Boyde, the senior Mauritanian officer during the exercise, who has trained in France, Tunisia and the United States.

“One of our biggest challenges,” the colonel added, “is separating the corn from the husk, so you can target the right people.”