AFRICOM Case Study: Mali & The Sahel

August 2010
By Kaila Clarke


The Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (G.S.P.C.) developed in the late 1990s in response to the Algerian civil war. The G.S.P.C. was associated with groups that aimed to implement an Islamic state in Algeria. In January 2007, the G.S.P.C. officially changed its name to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The Algerian army has pushed many AQIM militants from Algeria into northern Mali. AQIM’s primary desert base is just north of Gao in a region where local Malian authorities have little control; however, thus far most of AQIM’s attacks have taken place outside of Mali. Some suspect there is some “pact of nonaggression” between Mali and AQIM where Malians tacitly allow AQIM to remain in the region, and in exchange, the militants refrain from directing their attacks on Mali. Local authorities, however, deny the existence of any such pact. Intelligence officers fear that AQIM may use the Saharan region as a staging ground for jihadi operations against Europe and the United States. Some have suggested that AQIM has sent militants to Iraq to fight the US forces, however, these numbers are very low, if they exist.

Another source of conflict in northern Mali is between the government and the Tuaregs, the Berber nomads of the Sahara. The Tuaregs have a long history of rebellion to protect their pastoral lifestyle; before Malian independence, the Tuaregs rebelled against French rule until finally a military campaign brought about an unstable détente. The Tuaregs initiated a second rebellion in 1990 that was resolved with the Accords of Tamanrasset, eventually resulting in the National Pact of 1992. This Pact committed the Malian government to decentralize and further develop the northern region. Between 1991 and 1993, the state spent 48 percent of its budget in the North, as opposed to the 17 percent spent between 1968 and 1990. Mali, however, became paralyzed by a great burden of debt racked up during the military rule. Mali turned to the US and Europe to forgive or restructure its debt, however, they refused. As a result, the ever-increasing debt prevented Mali form upholding the commitment it made in the National Pact to develop the North. This failure of development has contributed to increased instability and conflict in the region, resulting in renewed rebellion by the Tuaregs in 2009.

US Involvement

    Since Amadou Toumani Touré, the President of Mali, has been unable to secure funds from the international community for development, he has pledged a ‘total struggle’ against AQIM as an alternative method of gaining US aid. He refuses to release his troops until they are better equipped and have received counterterrorism training by the US, thereby guaranteeing funding and consolidating his power. The U.S. has, in turn, eagerly increased its military involvement in Mali by launching several counterterrorism-training programs. These programs, including the Flintock program and the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, bring US and European military drill sergeants to the region to train local armies. According to Lt Col Louis Sombora, deputy commander of the Malian regiment that received the new U.S. military aid package, over 95 percent of his soldiers have received U.S. military training. These initiatives are now run by AFRICOM, the new US military command for Africa.
The US government has also greatly increased funding for the Mali military. In October of 2009, the Obama administration announced a major new security assistance package for Mali valued at $4.5 to $5.0 million known as the ‘Counter Terrorism Train and Equip’ (CTTE) program. The Obama administration has also requested increased funding for the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program, which would increase funding for Mali by $350,000. Furthermore, the 2010 financial year budget proposed to increase funding for the Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Partnership from $15 million to $20 million.
Additionally, the U.S. military has been getting increasingly involved in development work in Mali. Military personnel (untrained in development) repair infrastructure such as schools, wells, health centers, roads, and bridges. Military doctors have also been providing Malians with basic treatments and vaccinations. Military and civilian agency distinctions became less clear beginning in fiscal year 2008 when the Defense Department gave $9.5 million to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) mission in Mali for a counterterrorism program closely linked to the DoD. The program includes the provision of curricular advice to Koranic schools, revision of textbooks, and job training for young men. To disseminate US views and denounce local ideologies, USAID also built 14 community radio stations to broadcast programs.

Impact/Critique of US Involvement

1)    The trained Malian army may use their skills and equipment for goals contradictory to U.S. interests. While theoretically designed to reduce terrorist threats from AQIM, U.S. military training and U.S. provided equipment could very likely be used against the Tuareg insurgent forces.
2)    U.S. Military is intervening in an already generally peaceful and stable country despite its history marred with failed military interventions in other African states.
3)    Allowing development projects to be undertaken by the military may mean that development will be secondary to other military or political goals and will therefore likely fail to provide the necessary development for the northern region. Furthermore, the military is less skilled and knowledgeable about development projects and local cultures than civilian agencies whose focus is on development.
4)    U.S. Military involvement will likely cause resentment among some Malians due to their unclear intentions. Special Forces have caused fear among locals by firing flares and conducting development projects while armed and in military uniforms. This may ultimately lead to the strengthening of terrorists groups as loyalties turn against the U.S.


1)   The delivery of aid and construction of facilities is the task of humanitarian agencies, not military units. Thus, the US should partner with such organizations and provide them with necessary logistical and monetary assistance.
2) Contact your local Congressmen/Senators and call for a reduction in US military involvement in Africa, particularly of those armies known for committing grave human rights abuses. Additionally, call for greatly increased human rights training with oversight and follow-up where the US military is involved.

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