Roundup: Recent Assessments of U.S. Government Approaches Toward the Sahel

Here are a few items that I saw recently, all in very different ways assessing and critiquing aspects of how the United States government (or parts of it) has/have interacted with the Sahel:

  •  Loren DeJonge Schulman of the Center for a New American Security, “Working Case Study: Congress’s Oversight of the Tongo Tongo, Niger, Ambush.” I learned a lot from this. It reinforces my impression (and this is me speaking, not even paraphrasing Schulman) that U.S. troops are sometimes effectively on combat missions even if those missions go by highly euphemistic names. And there is not much oversight.
  • Nick Turse for the New York Times, “How One of the Most Stable Nations in West Africa Descended Into Mayhem.” This is a major piece of reporting. If you read it seeking a comprehensive explanation of Burkina Faso’s crises, you may walk away disappointed; if you read it as a critique of the United States government’s approach to Burkina Faso, the piece will probably make more sense.
  • State Department Office of Inspector General, “Audit of the Department of State Bureau of African Affairs Monitoring and Coordination of the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership Program.” Some pretty harsh assessments in there – but pretty fair, from what I can tell.

Mali to Step Up Fight Against AQIM?

Yesterday, Mali made the news when the State Department donated over $5 million in military equipment to assist in the fight against AQIM. As the BBC notes, this support supplements the military assistance Mali receives from Algeria and Libya.

US officer during training mission in Bamako, Mali (2007)

US officer during training mission in Bamako, Mali (2007)

The picture suggests that Washington as well as regional governments are increasingly concerned about AQIM activity in the Sahara. In fact, the BBC writes that this move may be a way for Washington to prod Mali’s government into mounting a major campaign against AQIM.

[This summer] Mali’s President Amadou Toumani Toure promised a “total war” against the Islamists and has claimed several successes.

The government recruited members of the nomadic Tuareg people – themselves former insurgents – to battle the Islamists.

But the BBC’s Martin Vogl in the capital, Bamako, says there has been little action over the past few months.

He says the gift from the US and talk of co-operation with other countries in the region may mean the battle is about to begin in earnest.

In many ways, this donation does not represent anything new. Systematic American counterterrorist efforts in the Sahel such as the Pan Sahel Initiative (PSI), which launched in 2002, have included Mali. These efforts expanded after 2005 with the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Program (TSCTP), from which Mali received around $37 million in funding (.pdf) from 2005 to 2008. TSCTP is supposed to last at least into 2010. I am assuming that yesterday’s $5 million donation augments, and does not replace, whatever Mali’s TSCTP share is for this year – especially because the $5 million comes from State, not the Pentagon.

The Globe and Mail calls this development “the latest sign of the deepening U.S. military presence in West Africa,” and notes that “the Pentagon deployed 300 Special Forces advisers to three bases in Mali from April to June of this year to give training and instruction to Mali’s army.” The article ends by questioning whether the Malian army, even with assistance from Washington, has the drive to take on AQIM, and whether regional efforts at coordination will bear fruit.

To anyone paying close attention, Washington has signaled that it has substantial confidence in Bamako. Will that close relationship give rise to a serious military offensive in the Sahara? We’ll have to see.