US slams African force as French begin Mali pullout
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A senior US Department of Defence official said Tuesday that the regional ECOWAS troops tasked with relieving French troops in Mali are "completely incapable" and warned al Qaeda may try to retake parts of the country after France's withdrawal.
A senior Pentagon official has said that troops from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), in Mali to counter armed rebels, were incapable of fulfilling its mission. On the same day France began a gradual military withdrawal from the country, the official also warned that al Qaeda would attempt to take back the territory it had conceded.
“Right now, the ECOWAS force isn't capable at all. What you saw there, it is a completely incapable force. That has to change,” Michael Sheehan, assistant secretary of defence for special operations, told the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on Tuesday.
The UN-backed ECOWAS contingent, some 4,300 soldiers from Togo, Senegal, Benin, Ghana, Niger, Sierra Leone, the Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso, have been fighting in Mali alongside 4,000 French and around 2,000 Chadian troops.
The multi-nation African force previously faced criticism after sluggishly mobilising to Mali, prompting many observers to say that France was isolated in the effort to push back AQIM -- al Qaeda's north African branch -- and other fighters from their desert strongholds earlier this year.
Helping France help Mali
Speaking to US Senators, Sheehan praised the French intervention that “very rapidly” pushed Islamist rebels “back across the Niger river and took control of the major cities” in Mali’s desert north.
On Tuesday, France withdrew 100 soldiers from Mali as part of plans to reduce its troops by half by this summer, as Paris tries to shift from a combat role to that of training and supporting Mali’s own army.
Sheehan said the US had a part to play in helping a current European mission -- spearheaded by France -- that is charged with rehabilitating Mali’s army to full combat capacity within 15 months.
“It's a very weak army, notwithstanding all the aid that we provided them over the last five years or so,” Sheehan said of Mali’s poorly-paid and ill-equipped troops. “It remains to be seen how it will evolve and develop into a professional force.”
Sheehan said the administration of President Barack Obama had barred the Department of Defence from providing any direct support to the Malian military, according to the The Hill, a blog on US Congressional activity.
Mali’s current leadership is in place as the result of a military coup in March 2012, restricting US foreign assistance in many ways. France’s largely successful military campaign against extremists in Mali had the help of US intelligence and airlift assets.
Will al Qaeda strike back?
During the hearing, Sheehan also said AQIM would attempt to reconstitute itself in Mali. “We'll see whether [they] will be able to establish a strategic capability from there over the years ahead,” he noted.
He added that much of the al Qaeda leadership previously based in Mali had escaped as French forces began taking back key cities.
French and ECOWAS troops have inflicted severe losses on rebels, but soldiers are still battling significant pockets of resistance in Gao, as well as in the fabled desert city of Timbuktu.
This weekend saw one of France’s largest actions since its military operation began in January.
Paris has already signalled that despite winding down the war effort, it would leave a 1,000-strong combat force in Mali indefinitely.