BAMAKO (AFP) – The EU began a top-to-toe overhaul of Mali’s ragtag army on Tuesday to help its soldiers take the place of foreign troops defending the west African nation against an Islamist insurgency.
The first of four battalions arrived in Koulikoro, 60 kilometres (37 miles) from the capital Bamako, to train under battle-hardened European instructors as part of a wider effort to bring the army up to scratch as quickly as possible.
“The 570 men of the Malian army have just arrived at the training site in Koulikoro,” Lieutenant-Colonel Philippe de Cussac, spokesman for the European Union Training Mission in Mali (EUTM), told AFP.
“Initially, the training will be very general. Afterwards, there will be a specialised training in telecommunications, artillery and engineering. We will also train special forces elite snipers.”
Around 200 trainers will come from France, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Finland, Lithuania, Luxembourg and Ireland, de Cussac said.
France, which sent 4,000 troops to its former colony in January to block an advance on the capital from the north by Al-Qaeda-linked fighters, is the lead country in the 10-week mission.
Paris is preparing to hand over to a UN-mandated African force of 6,300 in the coming weeks, placing a spotlight on Mali’s poorly-paid, ill-equipped and badly-organised armed forces.
The Malian military fell apart last year when well-armed Islamist extremists seized the country’s vast northern desert, terrorising locals with amputations and executions performed under a brutal interpretation of sharia Islamic law.
The French-led intervention quickly drove out the insurgents but significant pockets of resistance remain in the Ifoghas mountains as well as in the northern cities of Gao and Timbuktu.
In the latest spate of violence, Islamist gunmen used the confusion created by a suicide bomber on Saturday to infiltrate Timbuktu and engage French and Malian troops in fighting that left at least eight rebels, a soldier and a civilian dead.
A spokesman for the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, one of three armed Islamist groups operating in northern Mali, was quoted by the Mauritanian online news portal ANI, as threatening France and its allies with “more jihadist actions”.
Around half of the estimated 6,000 remaining Malian troops will train over the next year with the EUTM, which will run on a budget of 12.3 million euros ($15.8 million), with a first batch expected to be ready for combat in the north by early July.
Once trained, each of the four Mali battalions will have a unified command with an infantry-mobile core, backed by artillery and engineering, and a logistics component.
French General Francois Lecointre, who heads the EUTM, said the Malian army’s poor and “heterogeneous” equipment, made up of material donated by richer nations over two decades, was a big problem for the mission.
The bigger issue however is the army’s lack of a clear hierarchy and chain of command, with little team spirit, he told AFP.
The United States had initially begun an ambitious programme to train a new generation of Malian officers as part of a counter-terrorism programme in North and West Africa but the effort ended in embarrassment for Washington.
One of the officers who attended several courses with the US military, Captain Amadou Sanago, led a coup against the Malian government last March, prompting Washington to suspend its security assistance.
And when militants pushed out of the north last year, some of the Malian army units ended up defecting, with weapons and hardware falling into the hands of Islamist militants.
It was a sobering outcome for the US, which has touted the idea of training foreign armies to fight terror threats instead of launching more ground wars with American troops.
The experience helped shape the Obama administration’s cautious response to the French military intervention in Mali, with the US providing only limited support to French forces.