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All this has made it tough for Mali's military to defeat the insurgents. The US military has provided training to Malian forces – prior to a March 2012 military coup there that made it illegal under US policy to do so – but none of this training included counterinsurgency instruction.
The reason for that omission was largely political. “Where US policymakers in general may have dropped the ball is that during the period the US military was training Malian forces, we were so desperate for an African success story of any kind that certain parts of the [US government] willfully or subconsciously ignored mounting evidence that all was not well” with Mali's government, Pham says.
This evidence included growing corruption under the democratically elected president and indications that he was engaged in drug smuggling.
Though much has been made of the fact that the US military trained the commander who overthrew Mali's president, the use of the term “training” in this instance is a bit exaggerated, says Pham.
“It’s not like he went to school to be a lieutenant; he went to language school in Texas to be trained as an interpreter,” he says. The military career of the coup's leader, Capt. Aya Sanogo, wasn’t stellar within Mali’s previous government, analysts say, noting that he had been a captain for some 10 years, hardly a record of rapid promotion through the ranks.
For the most part, the US military focused on training Mali's elite units, many of whom remained loyal and died defending the elected president.
The US military training they did not receive, however, is the training they could have used most: counterinsurgency.
“As a result of decisions made at the US civilian level – and everyone certifying that Mali is a wonderful democracy – of course they’re not going to train for counterinsurgency. The response would be, ‘Everyone loves it there, so why would you train them from COIN [counterinsurgency operations]?' ” says Pham. “Yet that’s exactly the training they needed – otherwise maybe they wouldn’t be doing so poorly” against AQIM now.