A Mali soldier stationed at this Sahara crossroads showed me his rifle: a Chinese-made AK-47 with well-worn wooden handles manufactured in 1956. It looked more like an artifact than a weapon. He told me he only gets to fire it once a year during annual training exercises, as that's all the ammunition the Mali Army can spare.
The U.S. military has a long way to go in its efforts to train and equip these soldiers so that they can keep terrorists from transiting through the Sahara.
"It's difficult for the local military to get out there and patrol the borders just because it's a huge border and their budget's pretty small. So they need some assistance," said Capt. Eddie, the leader of a 12-man special forces A-Team that has spent two months in Gao working with Mali soldiers based here. To maintain anonymity, a special forces soldier can be identified publicly only by rank and first name.
Capt. Eddie's is the third special operations team the Pentagon has dispatched to Gao in the past three years. It's given many of these Mali soldiers the kind of training they've never had. Instead of once-a-year practice at the fire range, the Mali soldiers are going through daylong exercises and learning to use more advanced U.S. equipment. On Friday three of the Mali soldiers took part in a paratroop exercise, jumping out of a U.S. C-130 into the desert sands.
Mali isn't exactly a hotbed of terrorist activity, but when a terrorist group affiliated with al Qaeda took 32 Europeans hostage in 2003, it took them to Mali. After a reported ransom of $5 million was paid, the hostages were freed here in Gao. The leader of the terrorist group, Ammari Saifi, evaded capture in the lawless expanses of the Sahara for about a year before finally getting caught in Chad in early 2004.
The regional commander for the Mali army here, Maj. Salif Traore, said he was grateful for the U.S. effort. But he also said that to go after terrorists like Saifi, his troops would need something more: specifically, helicopters.
He said "it's very, very hard" to track terrorists in the vast, roadless areas of the Sahara that surround Gao. "We lack helicopters, and to my personal view this is the only means to be able to track them down," Traore said. The Mali army, however, does have camels. And in this area, a camel is sometimes the most reliable mode of on-the-ground transportation. Next week Traore plans to take the U.S. Army Special Forces team he's been working with out farther into the desert to work with Mali's Camel Corps. These Green Berets will learn a little about desert military training on camelback -- proving this training can work both ways.