U.S. Special Operations Forces Screwed Up in Mali
Why years of military cooperation achieved so little
The total collapse of the Malian army in the face of a Tuareg rebellion in 2011—and a subsequent coup by junior officers against the democratically-elected government—proves an important point.
That U.S. military cooperation with Mali up to 2011—specifically, efforts by U.S. Army Special Forces to train Malian troops—was an overall failure.
What’s been missing until now is a thorough analysis of exactly what went wrong. Army Maj. Simon Powelson’ new master’s thesis at the Naval Postgraduate School is the most insightful account of U.S.-Malian military cooperation prior to the crisis, which escalated into the capture of half the country by militant groups affiliated with Al Qaeda.
The author, a former Special Operations Forces trainer in Mali, teases lessons from the disaster and argues, quite convincingly, that not everything the Americans did in Mali was a complete bust. Just most of it.
What went wrong
U.S. military cooperation with Mali dates back to 1961, but the relationship thrived after 9/11. The Pentagon quietly shifted its attention to the African Sahel region, where Al Qaeda affiliates like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb were, and are, deeply entrenched. Powelson’s thesis focuses on the period 2009 to 2012.
The main problem with the U.S. approach in Mali, Powelson writes, was its episodic nature. He highlights a catastrophic engagement between Malian forces and AQIM fighters in July 2009. The firefight came several weeks after the targeted killing of well-connected Malian colonel Lamana Ould Cheikh by suspected AQIM operatives.
Shocked by the assassination, the Malian military launched an offensive against AQIM camps in the country’s north. But militants overran a government unit while it bivouacked on the night of July 4. Poor planning and perimeter security were likely factors in the army’s vulnerability. No fewer than 28 soldiers died—the costliest defeat for the Malian army since 1991.
Powelson lists at least four different Joint Combined Exchange Trainings, during which U.S. Special Forces trained and mentored Malian units—and which took place just months prior to the July battle. It’s clear that U.S. expertise could not prevent the “tactical and strategic disaster,” the major writes.
“While the disastrous July 4 ambush symbolized the inherent weaknesses of the Malian military,” Powell explains, “it also serves to discount the notion that episodic training events, on their own, can build sufficient military capability.”
Malian organization exacerbated the sporadic nature of U.S. assistance. “In general, most Malian soldiers served in the north on a rotational basis, much as members of the U.S. military have done in Afghanistan,” Powelson writes. “The north was considered a hardship tour. Approximately every three years, soldiers were replaced en masse with new soldiers from the south.”
Additionally, Mali’s main fighting units, the Echolon Tactique Inter-Armée, each drew their 160 members from several different branches of the armed forces—and these, too, would rotate every six months with other members of their original regiments.
“In a military without a developed culture of training, six-month turnovers within the ETIAs, and an overall turnover every three years, presented significant and essentially insurmountable problems for those attempting to assist the Malians to improve their capabilities,” Powelson argues.
Land Cruisers and ancient rifles
The Malian army was in overall poor condition. “It was common to see soldiers carrying AK rifles without stocks,” Powelson recalls. “Beyond rifles with no stocks, ETIA soldiers carried AK rifles with missing hand guards, no front sights, broken rear sights, wobbly stocks, etc.”
“Those not armed with AK rifles had SKS rifles,” the major adds. “The SKS entered service with the Soviet armed in 1949 and has long passed its prime as a viable front-line infantry rifle.”
But new equipment that the U.S. provided directly to Malian troops tended to quickly vanish, Powelson points out. America had better luck furnishing weapons and gear to units rather than to individual troops—but only if the equipment was actually useful in the local environment.
Washington supplied a few Land Cruisers to the Malian army, for example—and these rugged vehicles greatly enhanced the ETIAs’ combat readiness and effectiveness, in Powelson’s estimation.
Units were able to retain the trucks across multiple deployments. Similar vehicles were already in widespread use in Mali, meaning spare parts—and qualified mechanics—weren’t hard to find.
Less successful was the provision of Harris radios. The Malians weren’t familiar with the communications gear and couldn’t effectively use it during operations. It was pointless trying to train individual operators, because any given soldier was likely to rotate home fairly soon, taking his skills with him.
Concentrate on the partner
Powelson argues that those elements of the U.S.-Malian cooperation that focused on long-term partnership actually were successful. But because U.S. military assistance mostly entailed episodic training and individual material support, in the balance the American help was a waste.
The Pentagon and other Western armies should change their approach to countries like Mali, Powelson writes. “Building partner capacity requires an enduring engagement approach that is partner-focused rather than enemy focused.”
Rather than enabling individual units to fight the enemy, the goal should be to build competent military institutions capable of producing capable soldiers for sustainable units engaged in effective operations in pursuit of sound strategy. Top down, not bottom up.
Bruce Whitehouse, a researcher who was in Mali during much of the crisis, agrees with Powelson and sees the European Training Mission in Mali as a better blueprint for supporting foreign militaries. “Rather than transferring knowledge and skills to individual soldiers, E.U. officers have helped the Malian Defense Ministry form new units from the ground up,” Whitehouse writes.
But he also raises the important question of how successful military cooperation can be in the absence of a cohesive state. “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,” Whitehouse points out. “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.”
Powelson’s work can help us understand what works and what doesn’t when it comes to military cooperation. But on a grander scale, Whitehouse is right to point out that deficiencies in a country’s security sector have their roots in a malfunctioning political system.
Military cooperation alone can’t change that.