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US trains Mali army to fight Al Qaeda

Annual military exercises designed to combat spread of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Africa’s western bulge is fast becoming a chessboard of disparate rebellions to check, from conflicts a generation old — like oil bandits in Nigeria, separatists in Senegal’s Casamance and Tuareg resistance in Niger and Mali — to fresher worries, like religious pogroms in northern Nigeria, a smoldering cocoa-funded conflict in Ivory Coast, recent coups in Mauritania, Guinea, Niger, trouble in Guinea-Bissau and cocaine smuggling all over.

America’s Flintlock program is small scale. It involves about 1,200 troops across West Africa, from Ongoiba to the army bureaucrats mingling around Kati clutching clipboards.

“It’s got to be driven by them, not by us,” Schmidt said, explaining the operation’s bargain $10 million price tag purchases, among other logistics, 28,000 bottles of water, Kevlar vests for Ongoiba’s men and 42 four-wheel-drive vehicles for the Malian border control.

The vehicles are to patrol 4,500 miles of borders and one plane is to fly over 479,000 square miles.

Back in Kati, the even trickier question concerns the human element. After five years of the training sessions, American military leaders wonder how ready the Mali military is to confront Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

“We’re teaching them basic soldier tasks,” said Army Special Forces Capt. Shane West, trainer for Ongoiba’s company, cautioning that his soldiering 101 curriculum isn’t necessarily a reflection of their skill level.

Some American military trainers say privately that they have doubts about the whether the Mali soldiers are up to the task of countering the Islamist threat. But the Africans assert that they are.

“Right now, we already have the capacity, we’re ready” said Ongoiba. “One unit patrolling Mali’s north, I think it’s enough. We don’t need anymore. This unit will be able to face the challenges we have.”