Mali Crisis Offers Lessons for Special Operations Command (UPDATED)

By Stew Magnuson

U.S. Army Special Operations Forces train paratroopers
near Bamako, Mali, in November 2006.

A strategic shift to the Asia-Pacific, along with a hoped for gradual disengagement in the Middle East and South Asia, will usher in a new era for Special Operations Command as it returns to its roots, which is carrying out foreign internal defense missions.

As the command moves forward, it has examples of what worked and what didn’t to go by.
Two of them, mentioned by SOCOM Commander Navy Adm. William H. McRaven in a January speech, are Colombia and the Philippines.

At the time of 9/11, the Philippines’ Muslim south was considered terrorist safe havens. The Abu Sayaeff group kidnapped tourists and set off bombs in public.

“Today largely through the magnificent efforts of our SOF advisory teams and their Filipino counterparts, the threat is contained. Security has greatly improved,” McRaven said. “It is a story that rivals our success in Colombia” where SOF advised the local military on how to tackle the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — People’s Army, better known by its Spanish acronym, FARC.

Not mentioned until a reporter brought it up was Mali. Throughout the last decade, special operations forces were part of the larger State Department sponsored program, the Trans-Saharan Counter Terrorism Initiative, which had a stated goal of creating stability in the region in order to prevent terrorist safe havens.

In Mali, SOCOM supplied trainers through joint combined exchange exercises. In these operations, A-teams of about 12 special operators would train local troops and, in return, received knowledge about fighting in that country. The month-long surges included civil affairs teams that performed some engineering tasks, distributed school and medical supplies and held medical and dental clinics.

By the time McRaven spoke in late January, French forces were being called in to eradicate an Islamic extremist regime that was entrenched in the nation’s far north.

“What we have learned in working around the world in Colombia, Afghanistan and the Philippines is you’ve got to have that persistent presence. It has been difficult for us in some countries to have a persistent presence, and Mali is a case in point. We had an episodic presence in Mali,” he added.

The key to the indirect approach to preventing conflicts is “patience, persistence and building trust with our partners — a trust that cannot be achieved through episodic deployments, or chance contacts,” McRaven said.

“You can’t surge trust,” he added.

McRaven said he didn’t know if a persistent presence would have changed the U.S. military’s relationship with the Malian forces, or whether they would have become better fighters.

William Wechsler, deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations/low intensity conflict, polled the audience with a show of hands on how many could name the major tribal groups in Mali. Few were able to do so.

There isn’t much expertise within the military about places such as Mali, he noted. The crucial knowledge may be resident in other government agencies.

In November 2006, National Defense Magazine traveled to Mali to embed with an A-team that was training Malian paratroopers. At that time, Mali was considered a beacon for democracy in the region, and had experienced peaceful transfers of power through elections since the early 1990s.

Interviews with senior Malian military officers at the time revealed that the training was useful, but the army had no equipment to wage an effective war with the al-Qaida affiliated militants operating in the remote north. The Malian paratroopers practiced jumps from a U.S. European Command-supplied C-130.

The local air force did not have large aircraft of its own to move troops to the region where terrorist groups were said to be operating along with rebellious elements of the Tuaregs, a tribe that had always resisted rule from the south. Once there, the Malian army lacked tactical wheeled vehicles to cover a territory the size of Texas.

Part of the problem, Malian officers said, was that the civilian government, already one of the poorest in the world, put the military last in its funding priorities. Social welfare programs came first.

Al-Qaida affiliated fighters at that time were said to number about 100.

By early 2012, that had all changed with hardened fighters flooding the region after hostilities ended in Libya. The Malian military complained to the civilian government that it did not have the resources to fight the resurgent Tuareg rebels and their allies.

The military staged a coup, ending democracy there, and by law, U.S. military engagement with those who had seized power.

The military-led government still couldn’t provide the trained troops and equipment needed to fight the threat. Instability allowed Islamic extremists to take over the north and create a terrorist safe haven, an expansion the U.S. was attempting to prevent.

Wechsler said the Trans-Sahara Initiative, “clearly proved to be inadequate.”

Yet, the United States is not all-powerful. It is not the single preventive force for bad or positive actions around the world, he added.

“We not only try to understand the lessons learned, not only in our success, but in things that didn’t work out the way we really wanted [them] to,” he added.

Correction: The earlier version of the caption gave the incorrect year.

Photo Credit: Stew Magnuson

Topics: Counterinsurgency, Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict, SOF Training

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