Germany’s Getting All Tangled Up in the Malian Civil War
European training mission proves divisive in Berlin
Mali is a “focal point” of German cooperation with Africa, German defense minister Ursula Von Der Leyen said, adding that Berlin’s investment in the West African country should be “intensified.”
“Training of the Malian armed forces must continue,” Von Der Leyen argued during a parliamentary debate in February 2014. She got her way—and Germany increased its participation in the European Training Mission to Mali to a maximum of 250 soldiers.
Currently around 150 German soldiers are in Mali under the auspices of EUTM Mali, with 45 engaged full time in training activities.
So far, the European Union has financed the training of three Malian army battalions. The Malian army has to be rebuilt almost from the ground up, after a rebellion and subsequent coup ripped through the country in 2012.
Germany aside, France, Spain and other European nations have contributed to the more than 500 soldiers that support the Malian government in this endeavor. Their goal is to enable Mali’s army “to conduct the stabilization of the country on its own authority.”
In addition to the trainers, there are more than 1,000 French troops and several thousand African peacekeepers in Mali to provide security, especially in the country’s restive north.
So far, though, the German and European training has done little to professionalize the Malian army. When Tuareg rebels and the army clashed in the northern town Kidal on May 21, around a quarter of Mali’s 1,800 troops had undergone the three-month EUTM training.
The confrontation occurred after a series of provocations between the Malian government and the MNLA, an armed group that fights for the independence of northern Mali. After the MNLA captured several key buildings in Kidal, the army launched an offensive to regain control.
The operation ended in a disaster. After six hours of fighting, the soldiers fled Kidal, leaving behind more than 100 dead, according to sources familiar with the situation. Shocked by this defeat, other army units in northern towns fled their posts, leaving essentially half of the country in the hands of the rebels.
It’s hard to underestimate the magnitude of this setback—and the events of May also pose tough questions for Mali’s Western partners including Germany.
That, at least, is the opinion of Germany’s opposition parties. Green Party parliamentarian Adnieszka Brugger recently visited Mali as part of an official delegation. She isn’t fundamentally opposed to German military cooperation with Mali, she told War is Boring.
But, she added, “this can only make sense if it is put into the context of a reasonable overall strategy. This strategy has to tackle the roots of the conflict—and not with military means, but civilian ones.”
Currently, the government is missing an overall strategy, she argued.
Jan Van Aken, defense expert of the second opposition party, the Socialists, said he agrees. It’s “completely absurd” that Germany is training Malian soldiers, who might then fight against the French, he said.
Van Aken was alluding to frequent reports in international media that the French army is closely cooperating with parts of the MNLA and other armed groups in its fight against radical Islamists in the region.
He was also criticizing the quality of German training. “What we are hearing from Mali,” he said, “is that these units [trained by Germany] were cannon fodder” in Kidal.
Asked for comment, a spokesperson for the German Ministry of Defense denied these accusations. “The involvement of Germany in the EUTM Mali training mission is part of a comprehensive engagement of the federal government with Mali in the context of a networked approach.”
Further, the spokesperson insisted that it was never the goal of EUTM Mali to prepare Malian soldiers for “complex operations—e.g., an attack on an urban area. We have currently no information about an alleged ‘cooperation’ between French and MNLA armed forces,” he continued.
While this, if true, would display a stunning lack of politically and militarily relevant information on part of the German army, there are other aspects of the attack that should make German politicians and officers ponder their approach in Mali.
Firstly, the international community seems to have very little influence on the Malian government and its armed forces. It was the visit of the Malian prime minister to Kidal that marked the beginning of the confrontations between the MNLA and the government.
This provocative visit occurred against the explicit wishes of Mali’s international partners, War is Boring can confirm.
MNLA reacted to the visit to its stronghold by abducting 30 Malian civil servants and soldiers. The Malian army apparently asked neither its Western allies nor its own government for the green light to attack the city. “The Malian government denies giving the order to attack [Kidal],” a German Ministry of Defense spokesperson said.
These developments are worrying—especially given Mali’s recent history, Brugger said. “In the context of the coup d’etat that happened in Mali in 2012, the political control over the military has to be strengthened,” she argued.
The German government puts too much emphasis on military cooperation, leaving nation building, army reform and national reconciliation on the wayside, Brugger said.
The German government sees things differently. “There is no concentration of the German engagement in Mali on military matters,” the military spokesperson said. Obviously, the German government sees no reason to reassess its approach to Mali.