French and British commandos are reportedly on the ground in Mali, leading Malian troops and calling in air strikes by French Mirage and Rafale fighters. Meanwhile Algerian special troops, on standby to rescue hostages in neighboring Mali, also pulled off the ballsy, and bloody, liberation of an Algerian oil facility seized by militants allegedly in retaliation for the intervention in Mali.
It’s less clear what, if any, role U.S. special operations forces are playing. Prior to last year’s political upheaval in southern Mali, which presaged the Islamists’ capture of the north, American commandos worked closely with the Malian military. Officially, the U.S. troops evacuated after a military coup in March, but a fatal accident occurred shortly after the official departure — raising questions about whether the U.S. Special Operations Command is really done with Mali.
French special operations forces arrived in Mali soon after the Jan. 11 opening battle in the town of Konna, in which Mirage planes and Gazelle helicopters based in nearby Chad and Burkina Faso blunted an advance by hundreds of militants traveling in as many as 200 vehicles.
Paris’ commandos came with Patsas light armored vehicles and Caracal and Gazelle copters of their own, according to Joseph Henrotin, a French analyst and military academy instructor. “They are engaged in recon and combat operations,” Henrotin tells Danger Room. French army operations in Mali are depicted in the official video release above.
But the French special troops are not fighting door to door, Henrotin says. Instead the commandos are advising, commanding and supporting Malian soldiers as they handle most of the direct combat. In that way the commandos are essentially the glue holding together the poorly-trained, under-equipped Malian army.
In the first confrontations with the Islamists, many Malian troops deserted. “When the first French troops arrived, everything changed,” Malian Capt. Cheichne Konate told Agence-France Presse. “They helped us to reconstitute the defense formations. The men who had left returned. Without them it would be over for us.”
French air controllers, which in the U.S. are considered special operations forces, have also coordinated the aerial bombardment, helping fighter pilots spot targets on the ground.
These “Tactical Air Control Parties,” as they’re known, are a relatively new specialty for the French. “Since 2001, a lot of progress has been made in terms of TACP development, training and equipment,” Henrotin says. Four years ago, Paris acquired its first handheld Remote Video Terminals that allow ground troops to exchange video directly with drones and pilots in the air.
The U.K., too, has deployed a small number of special operations forces to Mali, The Guardian reported. The British commandos are part of a team of military and intelligence personnel working alongside French commanders and are not doing any actual fighting, The Guardian claimed.
Likewise, Algeria’s commandos are engaged only on the periphery of the French intervention. After militants kidnapped seven of Algiers’ diplomats in the northern Malian city of Gao last April, Algerian special troops went on a “war footing” on their side of the border, ready to launch a rescue, according to French analyst Eric Denécé.
But the Mali rescue never happened, and when Algerian special operations forces swung into action, it was on home soil. Last week, militants based in Mali seized a natural gas facility in remote eastern Algeria, taking hostage hundreds of Algerian and foreign workers, including Americans.
Commandos led a rescue effort on Saturday. When the smoke had cleared, 29 militants and 37 hostages lay dead, the latter either executed by the terrorists or killed in the crossfire. Governments protested the hostages’ deaths, but Denécé said it was wrong to blame the commandos, who have been battling militants on their own doorsteps for 20 years and take for granted a high death toll. “This is a different psychology, that of a country that has experienced two decades of bombings and terrorist massacres.”
If the U.S. has its own special operations forces in Mali, it’s not saying. In years past, U.S. Special Operations Command frequently sent commandos to the West African country in order to train Malian troops. But the U.S. government announced that relationship ended in March of last year, after the very Malian army officers the U.S. trained toppled the democratically elected government, which began a chain of woes that led to the Islamists’ capture of the north.
“The Department of Defense’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency received a memorandum from the State Department dated 19 April notifying the DoD of the coup designation and the termination of all military assistance programs,” Col. Tom Davis, spokesman for U.S. Africa Command, said in a statement. “Upon receiving this notification from State Department [sic], we began arranging the departure of personnel and equipment from Mali.”
According to The Washington Post, the U.S. had already ended all training and civil-affairs efforts in Mali by the end of March, before the State Department notification. But some special troops were still in the capital of Bamako on April 20, the day after the order to depart. That night, three American commandos — two civil affairs soldiers and an intelligence specialist — accidentally drove their Toyota Land Cruiser off a bridge and into the Niger River. All three died along with three Moroccan prostitutes also in the vehicle.
That a few commandos were still on the ground in Mali a day after being told to leave is not itself all that strange. What’s notable is the government’s explanation for their continued presence. In the aftermath of the accident Africa Command told The Washington Post that “a small number of personnel” had remained in Mali to “provide assistance to the U.S. embassy” and “maintain situational awareness on the unfolding events.”
Asked if any Special Operations Command troops were still working for the embassy in Mali, a command spokesman referred us to Africa Command. Africom, based in Germany, did not respond to a message sent early Friday.
If any commandos remain at the U.S. embassy, they’re in good company, in a war waged largely by special operations forces from allied nations. And if not, however much the Pentagon might want to limit the U.S. contribution to the Mali war, the pressures of a sustained fight against the Islamists might create pressure for Washington to send them there.