Special Operations Command Europe Trains African Soldiers
TIMBUKTU, Mali -- In direct support of the war on terrorism, units from Special Operations Command Europe are currently training African soldiers along the fringes of the Sahara Desert.
Currently, soldiers assigned to the 1st Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) in Stuttgart, Germany are deployed to Timbuktu, Bamako and Gao, Mali and Atar, Mauritania supporting the Pan Sahel Initiative. The Pan Sahel Initiative is a U.S. Department of State Security Assistance Program focusing on four countries in the Sahara region of Africa: Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad.
"We're here in Timbuktu to provide foreign internal defense training to the Malian soldiers," said a 1-10th SFG (A) senior engineer. Key aspects of the training include basic marksmanship, planning, communications, land navigation and patrolling.
Foreign internal defense is just one of Special Operations Forces nine principal missions. It includes training, assisting and advising foreign government military forces so they will be better trained to protect their own societies from subversion, lawlessness and insurgencies.
An average training day for the team starts around 8 a.m. when the trainers meet their platoon-sized class for instruction. On this day, the Malians are learning how to respond if they come under attack while they're on a mounted patrol. A 1-10 SFG(A) senior weapons sergeant teaches the class through a translator. While French is the primary language here, Arabic, Tuereg, Sorai and Tamahek are also spoken, making the training challenging. Often times instructions are translated several times before the entire class understands.
After approximately 30 minutes of instruction they're eager to practice what they've just learned. The newly painted Landcruiser plows to a stop in the powder-fine sand and nearly a dozen Mali soldiers spring out of the back of the truck to face simulated aggressors.
Within seconds they're all on line and they take up prone firing positions. Amid simulated gunfire they lay down immediate suppressive fire. The Sergeant announces that the exercise is a success as the rest of the company cheers in the background. With just as much enthusiasm they pile back into the truck and make their escape.
"We're teaching them tactics that could save their lives in a real world combat situation," said the Sergeant.
"We're fighting against terrorists so this training is very important for us," said Malian Army Lt. Col Unisa Barizamega, commander of the 5th Military Region. This region is mostly desert and it comprises 40 percent of the country. "This training is helping us improve our combat skills and teaching us new ones," he said.
In the heat of the day the team breaks around noon for lunch and heads for shade. The temperature climbs into the 100s on any given day, and it's not even the hot season yet. In spite of the heat and challenges, the Mali soldiers are proud and appreciative of the training they are receiving.
"We're very grateful for the equipment and training," said Malian Army Capt. Lassine Keila through a translator. Keila is the commander of the 512th Regiment in Timbuktu. "I'm very certain that after the training we will be able to confront any type of adversary in the desert," he said.
The training resumes around 1 p.m. and stretches into the afternoon. After the training is complete the team returns to work on the lesson plan for the next day.
According to State Department officials, this region of Africa has become important in the global security arena. Vast expanses of unpopulated areas, instability and porous borders make Africa an inviting refuge for terrorists.
"The Sahara Desert is about the size of Texas and it's full of caves and flatlands, really it's a no man's land that could be used by terrorists," said Madame Vicki Huddleston, U.S. Ambassador to Mali. "We're helping to teach them how to control this area themselves.
"If Mali allows its territory to be used by terrorists, then it could be a danger to all of us, and everyone who wants a peaceful world. By cooperating with Mali to better protect its borders and territory we can help keep it from being used by terrorists. This makes Mali a very important partner in the war on terrorism, she said.
During a recent site visit, the SOCEUR commander, Brig. Gen. Thomas Csrnko got a chance to see the training first hand.
"I'm very encouraged by the level of participation and the professionalism of the Malian and Mauritanian soldiers," said Csrnko. "They're working hard and the training is coming along well."
The African soldiers are not the only ones to benefit from PSI. The SOCEUR forces, known throughout the U.S. European Command for their abilities to excel in the most austere locations with the command's area of responsibility, are getting the opportunity to learn new cultures, terrain and languages by working with these African forces. Additionally, they are conducting SOF specific training requirements in a new environment that they don't normally encounter in central Europe.
Some of the unilateral training that was conducted here includes extensive small arms training and the first ever airborne operation over Timbuktu.
"This is another great opportunity for our great Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines to get out on the ground and conduct meaningful training in this region," said Csrnko. "It allows them to hone their skills and operational techniques." Airmen from the 352nd Special Operations Group, flying out of Royal Air Force, Mildenhall, England also supported the mission with a MC-130E Talon II.
"We're able to support the PSI mission and get training out of it at the same time," said Maj. Brian Rausch, 7th Special Operations Squadron mission commander. "We're flying low level, flying airways, providing airdrop bundles to teams in the field and personnel drops."
The Pan Sahel Initiative supports U.S. national security interests in the war on terrorism by enhancing regional peace and security. It directly assists Mali, Niger, Chad and Mauritania in protecting their borders and exploiting opportunities to detect and deter terrorists by providing basic training and equipment.
The Department of State funds the $7.75 million initiative with peace keeping funds. The money provides for vehicles, communications equipment, sustainment and training and individual equipment like uniforms, boots, hand held GPS units, binoculars and canteens.
"If we don't help Mali and these other countries control their territory, then it's possible terrorists might use it," said Huddleston. "If we don't provide [training and equipment], I'm not so sure anyone else is going to. If we don't help [these countries] control their territories, then they will be used by the bad guys."