After Mali emerged from authoritarian rule in 1991, the United States government ramped up bilateral development and military aid to the country’s new, formally democratic regime. American trainers began working with Malian soldiers; those of us who spent time in towns like Segou or Sévaré in the late ’90s regularly encountered US Special Forces troops during their rotations there. Then came 9/11, the Global War on Terror, and the founding of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM); the Pentagon spent millions on new programs to train and equip armies throughout the Sahel region, and in 2008 created AFRICOM, a new command for Africa that has been quietly expanding its activities on the continent ever since.
With the March 2012 coup and near-total collapse of Mali’s military, it became painfully evident that none of these initiatives succeeded in building a Malian force to counter the threat from AQIM and other armed groups in the region. As Greg Mann wrote shortly after the coup, “a decade of investment in Special Forces training, cooperation between Sahelien armies and the United States, and counterterrorism programs of all sorts run by both the State Department and the Pentagon has, at best, failed to prevent a new disaster in the desert and, at worst, sowed its seeds.” Numerous critiques of US assistance to Mali have followed, some (e.g. Barry Lando in the Huffington Post) suggesting that American military training inadvertently helped the rebels win. These critiques, however, lacked specific evidence as to what went wrong.
A recent study fills this gap, offering an insider’s insights into the failures of US military aid to Mali. It was written by Simon Powelson for his masters thesis at the Naval Postgraduate School, on which he was advised by anthropologist and defense analyst Anna Simons. Powelson, currently a major in the US Army, led Special Forces training teams on multiple rotations to Mali between 2009 and 2011 as a captain (his participation in a 2009 exercise in Gao, for example, is documented in leaked State Department cables as well as by Agence France Press). The author draws from his own experience, interviews with US, Malian, and French military personnel, evidence from WikiLeaks cables, and various published sources to produce probably the most comprehensive assessment yet made public of the Pentagon’s failed approach to counterterrorism in the Sahara and Sahel.
Powelson’s principal focus is on the period after the US Department of Defense created the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Trans Sahara (JSOTF-TS) in 2006. This group took the lead in providing in-country training to the Malian armed forces. From 2009 its instructors began working with composite Malian units known as ETIAs (an acronym for Echelon Tactique Inter-Armée), which were key to the Malian Defense Ministry’s strategy to secure the north. (A 2009 State Department cable referred to ETIAs as “Mali’s current unit of choice in the fight against Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.”) An ETIA consisted of 160-200 soldiers drawn from different service units; these soldiers rotated into the ETIA for a roughly six-month stint in the north (considered a “hardship tour” in the Malian military), then rejoined their original outfits elsewhere. Four ETIAs were responsible for security in an area roughly the size of Texas.
The main problem with the ETIAs, aside from insufficient numbers, was constant personnel turnover. American trainers imparted skills to ETIA troops who soon completed their tours and left; the lessons learned quickly dissipated. It didn’t help that where the soldiering abilities of Malian troops was concerned, the baseline was incredibly low. Powelson writes that members of two of the four ETIAs
displayed an almost total lack of basic soldier skills. Some soldiers claimed never to have fired their weapon before the JCET [Joint Combined Exchange Training, conducted by US personnel]. Others could not disassemble their weapon. And still others were perplexed why their rifle would not fire when filled with sand! Furthermore, during initial rifle training, the ODA [Special Forces A-team] observed some soldiers firing with their eyes closed! There were individual exceptions, but overall the poor skill level was… shocking.
Even after two years of near-constant ETIA training operations involving US Special Operations instructors from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, the ETIAs’ combat capabilities remained abysmal.
Equipment posed further challenges. From boots to uniforms to ammunition pouches, the US government provided gear for individual ETIA members, but these items disappeared as soldiers rotated back to their original units. US-made rifle magazines were “unfit for combat use”; expensive radios, also supplied by the Pentagon, were impossible to use. Powelson describes a “disconnect between Malian requirements, the type of equipment they could absorb, and US train and equip efforts.” The Malian Defense Ministry did its share of damage by ordering the wrong parts and failing to issue new equipment from its stockpiles. At a time when many ETIA soldiers’ rifles were broken or obsolete, “thousands of new Chinese AKs sat crated in a Bamako supply depot.”
Such deficiencies did not go unnoticed. By mid-2010, American and Malian officials planned a fresh start with a new unit, the Compagnie de Forces Speciales (CFS), the members of which would be drawn from the Malian army’s most elite group, the 33rd Airborne Regiment. This unit was to be mission-ready in five years–but AQIM and its allies didn’t wait that long, launching their insurgency in late 2011. In contrast to the ETIAs, which “completely disintegrated as cohesive fighting units” once the shooting started, according to Powelson, CFS troops acquitted themselves well on the battlefield. But they were too few and too poorly supplied to stem the tide of disaster that engulfed Mali’s military and ultimately the entire country.
Powelson characterizes pre-2012 US engagement with the Malian military as “episodic”: its goals focused narrowly on counterterrorism and “train and equip.” It favored short-term training missions, bringing Malian personnel to the US through the International Military Education and Training or IMET program (coup leader Amadou Sanogo, among many other Malian officers and enlisted men, did IMET-sponsored courses in the States), or bringing teams of US instructors like Powelson’s to Mali. These missions did nothing to address underlying incapacities, chief among them poor unit cohesion and a dysfunctional organizational culture. “Instead of military culture that valued honesty, discipline, self-sacrifice, decisive action, initiative, and duty to country,” the author writes, “an opposite culture emerged that created an environment that did not support sound individual initiative or discipline–a culture overrun by apathy.”
US military assistance never addressed this dysfunctional organizational culture, as AFRICOM’s commander acknowledged last year. Rebuilding Mali’s military and fostering cultural change within it requires what Powelson calls “enduring engagement”; this is what planners intended by creating the CFS, and what the European Union Training Mission in Mali (EUTM) has done for the past year. Rather than transferring knowledge and skills to individual soldiers, EU officers have helped the Malian Defense Ministry form new units from the ground up. Four battalions of about 650 troops each have now completed 12-week EUTM courses in Koulikoro designed to foster unit cohesion as well as train capable soldiers. The mission was recently extended by two years and will include members of Mali’s National Police, Gendarmerie, and National Guard. US military aid to Mali, meanwhile, has been suspended since the coup: “Any eventual resumption of assistance to the Malian military will prioritize security sector reform, professional norms, the reassertion of civilian authority, accountability mechanisms, and the rule of law,” the State Department said in a press release last September.
If Powelson’s analysis helps settle the question of how and why America’s episodic engagement in Mali failed, it raises broader, more vexing questions, to which that press release alludes. Will enduring engagement with the Malian military be enough? Malian troops still harbor a deep distrust toward their military and civilian leaders. More to the point, once an effective military is created, can it be sustained in the absence of an effective state? The ills of the armed forces are, at their root, the same ills that afflict the Malian state as a whole; the culture of apathy Powelson observed within the army extends throughout the government. Yet “nation-building” is unlikely to be on donors’ policy agendas, thanks to a decade of harsh lessons in Iraq and Afghanistan. Strengthening the Malian state will be an enduring process indeed, and it would be unrealistic to expect Malians to make it happen on their own. But even if Western governments commit significant time and resources to that process, it’s not clear that they have either the knowledge or the patience necessary to see it succeed.