Mali insurgency followed 10 years of U.S. counterterrorism programs

Walter Pincus
Reporter January 16, 2013

What went wrong with the counterterrorism efforts the State and Defense departments ran in Mali for 10 years?

French troops are moving against Islamist fighters who’ve traveled south from northern Mali. The White House or Congress, or both, should examine why the U.S. programs targeting the groups failed.

It’s worth understanding, since the United States is trying similar efforts in other nations.

In November 2002, the State Department announced that officials from its Office of Counterterrorism had visited Mali and other West African countries to brief governments on the Pan Sahel Initiative (PSI), which was “designed to protect borders . . . combat terrorism, and enhance regional cooperation and stability.”

Despite those big goals, State funded PSI with only $7.75 million, the first $6.65 million coming in 2004. With that money, U.S. European Command (EUCOM) sent U.S. Special Forces training units to work with the Mali military. The fear was that Islamic fighters driven from Afghanistan would settle in northern Mali. Air Force Maj. Gen. Jeffrey B. Kohler, then head of planning at EUCOM, said, “We’re helping to teach them [the Malian military] how to control this area themselves so they can keep it from being used by terrorists.”

In 2005, PSI was replaced by the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP), a partnership of State, Defense and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) meant to focus on improving individual country and regional capabilities in northwest Africa.

According to a Government Accountability Office study, Mali got roughly $37 million in TSCTP funds from 2005 through 2008. More than half went to Defense projects. But GAO reported that there were bureaucratic differences over the programs and funding problems. “USAID received funds for its TSCTP activities in Mali in 2005 and 2007, but not in 2006,” for example. “Because it received no funds for 2006, the mission suspended a peace-building program in northern Mali,” the area with the greatest threat.

In 2006, Mali was included in the U.S. Millennium Challenge, a U.S. effort to provide economic support to countries “committed to good governance, economic freedom, and investing in their citizens.” A $461 million compact provided money for agriculture and expanding Mali’s access to markets and trade. It was to end on Sept. 17, 2012, but ended in March after the military coup.

One defense element under TSCTP was Operation Flintlock, a joint exercise to train the Malian army and armed forces of Algeria, Chad, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal and Tunisia. It would later add troops from Burkina Faso, Morocco and Nigeria.

Operation Flintlock 2005 was called the biggest exercise in Africa since World War II, involving 1,000 U.S. personnel and forces from seven regional countries. The exercise scenario, according to a BBC story, was “a terrorist group being chased across national borders from Mauritania in the west, through to Mali, Niger and finally Chad.”

A partial breakdown of spending under TSCTP showed that in the 2006-2007 period about $5 million was meant for youth programs in the north such as schools and to “expand the ability of citizens to participate in local government,” said a State Department document.

Operation Flintlock exercises were held in Mali in 2007 and 2008. In 2009, Mali got equipment worth $5 million, including 37 “new Land Cruiser pickup trucks, along with powerful communications equipment” for the desert, according to a U.S. statement. Mali also got $1 million in U.S. mine-detector equipment.

The 2009 exercise, held near Bamako, the capital, saw the first U.S. Special Operations Forces use of the CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft. The 2010 exercise involved some 1,200 people, and U.S. Special Forces showed a Malian special forces team how to handle an ambush in the Sahara, a Defense news release said.

The U.S. Africa Command had planned to hold a Flintlock 2012 exercise in Mali, but it was canceled because of problems in the north. Then the coup in March ended U.S. military assistance.

Even coup leader Capt. Amadou Sanogo represents something of a U.S. failure. He had participated in the Pentagon’s International Military Education and Training programs, with basic training at Fort Benning, Ga.; English-language training at Lackland Air Force Base, Tex.; an intelligence course at Fort Huachuca, Ariz.; and study at Quantico, Va., with the Marine Corps.

Last November, Army Lt. Gen. John F. Mulholland Jr., deputy commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, told a Defense Strategies Institute conference in Alexandria that “we are not going to kill our way to victory” using Navy SEAL raids and drone strikes alone. What’s needed, he said, are “preemptive efforts before the fight starts . . . done with [host country] partners.”

Wasn’t that our Mali strategy?

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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