A coup in the small West African nation of Mali is having an outsized impact on the Pentagon’s campaign to confront violent jihadi groups now flourishing in Africa.
For the second time in less than a decade, soldiers from the Malian armed forces ousted their president in a military coup. The overthrow of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita last week seems certain to add to the political instability of a region where U.S., French and other forces are battling Islamic movements.
Mr. Keita, now being held in detention by the soldiers who engineered the coup, won popular elections in 2013 and 2018, but his popularity took a nosedive after his government failed to rein in Islamic extremists in Mali’s north and the military faced punishing losses from the jihadis.
Mali is strategically located at the heart of Africa’s troubled Sahel region, where jihadi groups have been expanding their influence. The coup was carried out as a time of questions about U.S. Africa Command and whether the Trump administration wanted to keep troops in the region as it tries to focus defense strategy on the challenge posed by China.
After the coup, Pentagon officials cited their “long-standing partnership” with the Malian military in the campaign against terrorism, but that relationship is now in jeopardy.
“The Department of Defense strongly condemns the act of mutiny in Mali and is carefully monitoring the developing situation,” said Marine Corps Lt. Col. Anton T. Semelroth, a Pentagon spokesman. “Until a thorough assessment is complete, there will be no further training or support to the Malian armed forces.
“The military coup in Mali comes on top of years of conflict and violence in the wider Sahel region that has trapped millions of people in crisis, ” Klaus Spreyermann, head of the delegation for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Mali, told EuroNews.com over the weekend.
“Violence has tragically escalated during the COVID-19 pandemic, driving death, injury and displacement, all while more than 18% of health care facilities nationwide, 90% of them in the north, have been destroyed by war,” he said.
In the Malian capital of Bamako on Monday, West African mediators suspended talks with Mali’s military junta after failing to reach an agreement on a path back to democratic rule, The Associated Press reported.
The junta calling itself the National Committee for the Salvation of the People has proposed pushing back Mali’s next election until 2023, while leaders from the bloc known as the Economic Community of West African States and others want a return to civilian rule as soon as possible.
The Trump administration, the United Nations and most countries denounced the Aug. 18 coup and called for the restoration of Mali’s elected government.
Roles for France, U.S.
The United States has supported anti-terrorism operations in Mali for several years but has let France take the operational lead in its former colony. Pentagon officials said all U.S. military personnel in Mali are safe and have been accounted for.
In January, French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly said the backing of the U.S. was critical to an increasingly expensive anti-insurgency mission in the region, but Defense Secretary Mark Esper said France “has been a real leader in the Sahel” while signaling that the U.S. may even step back from operations in Africa.
“I think it’s high time for other European allies to assist in the region,” Mr. Esper said during a Pentagon press conference. “That could offset whatever changes we make as we consider next steps in Africa.”
It was French forces who managed to dislodge jihadi fighters linked to the Islamic State group and al Qaeda after they captured many towns in Mali’s north seven years ago, but recent events show that the terrorist threat was checked but not defeated.
Mali is a landlocked country in West Africa with a population of about 19 million and an area of just over 480,000 square miles. It is the eighth-largest country in Africa.
After the coup, the U.S. Embassy in Bomako warned Americans in the country to keep a low profile and avoid any unnecessary travel.
The overthrow of Mr. Keita, 75, also has focused attention on the U.S. Africa Command’s relatively unknown “Flintlock” military and law enforcement exercises.
Malian Army Col. Assimi Goita, who has emerged as the leader of the junta, participated in the Flintlock operations in past years, Pentagon officials confirmed. He also took part in a program focused on terrorism at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Germany and attended a seminar at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida.
“The Department of Defense is carefully reviewing the situation on the ground in Mali for any potential impacts on our assistance,” Col. Semelroth said.
While acknowledging that Col. Goita received training from the U.S. military, a spokesman for U.S. Africa Command said it was important to understand the context of what training he received. The Flintlock exercises, said Air Force Col. Christopher P. Karns, are focused on the rule of law in armed conflict, professionalism and respect for military and civilian authority.
“Thousands of military members from Africa and their partner nations have participated in these types of exercises and training to confront security threats in the region,” Col. Karns said.
U.S. military officials strongly condemn the mutiny in Mali, Col. Karns said. Nothing in the U.S. training would have encouraged such a move, officials said.
“It is absolutely inconsistent with everything that is taught in the U.S. military and its training,” he said.
⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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