Ill-prepared Mali-bound African forces slow out of blocks

Nigerian soldiers part of Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) troops train on January 19, 2013 on the 101st airbase in Bamako. PHOTO | AFP 

African nations jolted into action by France's surprise intervention in Mali responded with swift troop pledges but a lack of funds, equipment and battle readiness has slowed their deployment, diplomats say.

Paris' decision to short-circuit a sluggish UN diplomatic process and send in its forces on January 11 to rescue Mali from Al Qaeda-linked groups controlling the north was met with promises by the region to fast-track its military involvement.

Troop pledges soon exceeded the Economic Community of West African States' plan for a 3,300-strong force to reach a potential 4,000 men, as well as half that number from non-member Chad.

France had hoped that after an initial blitz against the fledgling infrastructure of Islamist groups that have controlled the north since April, African troops would move in and take over the longer-term task of assisting the Malian army in securing a reunited country.

But since declaring their willingness to join the battle, African troops have struggled to keep up with French pace and, two weeks into the intervention, most of the 1,000 who had made it to Mali were still in Bamako.

"Yet they had been preparing for an operation in Mali for months," a frustrated French security source in the region said on condition of anonymity.

Ecowas, led by regional powerhouse Nigeria, said it had its Mali force on standby in May last year.

But when the 15-nation bloc met at an emergency summit on January 19 to discuss how to best help the French and Malian armies, leaders "stumbled on money issues," a diplomat in the region said.

Who will pay African troops, who will feed them and who will transport them, were some of the vital questions left unanswered.
Western powers argue the deployment can go ahead regardless but the continent wants guarantees before sending its armies to Mali's desert north, where Islamist fighters will be outnumbered but not necessarily outfoxed.

Who will pay?

Besides Nigeria and Chad, other countries to have pledged contingents are Burkina Faso — whose men have started deploying — Ghana, Togo, Benin, Niger, Senegal, Ivory Coast and Guinea.

Chad's forces are experienced and familiar with the hostile terrain but troops from some of the coastal nations want training before taking on groups led by battle-hardened fighters trained by Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

Hopes of a fully-fledged African deployment are now pinned to a donor conference in Addis Ababa in January 29 ahead of the African Union's summit and a European Union meeting in Brussels on February 5.

Philippe Hugon, a research director at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations (Iris), said the Europeans "will certainly have to finance a great part of this war".

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius remained upbeat, saying the force was "much faster than expected".
But he acknowledged logistical challenges and on Thursday the only Ecowas troops known to be anywhere near a combat zone were 160 Burkinabe soldiers.

Ivorian Defence Minister Paul Koffi Koffi recently said that in terms of the speed of the deployment, the region "can't do better than that".

An Ecowas diplomat said the idea is to have "at least 800" African soldiers on the ground in the short term.
Western countries, including the United States, have pledged support for the Mali intervention, promising transport and fuel, but logistics are only one of the obstacles to overcome for the African force.

"Even if the money was available right away, the armies often don't have the required equipment. It has to be ordered and that can take time," a Burkinabe government source said.

Ahmedou Ould Abdallah, a Mauritanian diplomat and a former senior UN official, said African forces should be deployed in the area of operations "ideally within two weeks".

But he predicted African soldiers would mostly be in charge of "securing" zones where French and Malians forces have already flushed out any armed opposition.

One African Union official put it more simply and stressed it was unrealistic to expect Ecowas to do any of the fighting.

"Essentially, there will be no commitment of Africans in the offensive phase, except perhaps by the Chadians."


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