Spain’s Malian mission

Soldiers are training local forces for the battle against jihadists

Putting Malian troops through their paces in Koulikoro.
Putting Malian troops through their paces in Koulikoro.JOSÉ NARANJO

The Spanish soldier is shouting in French: "That is good, but you need to lift the weapon up a bit."

A Malian soldier, with one knee on the ground, passes the order to his seven comrades in Bambara, the local language. It is only 10am, but the temperature is already over 35ºC. The day starts early at the Koulikoro Military Academy, Mali, where 15 Spanish instructors are training 673 Malian soldiers in commando techniques. After midday, being out in the sun will simply be torture.

Suddenly an instructor issues a warning: "The enemy is ahead and approaching!" The soldiers start to simulate firing their weapons, after which, in an orderly fashion, they cross a ravine and take refuge in vegetation. Tens of meters away, at the top of a hill, Legion sergeant Alejandro Jareño Aguiar, born in Las Palmas, is keeping a close eye on every detail of what is going on. He is in charge of a platoon that is responsible for security. "The first thing you notice when you arrive is the heat, but I really wanted to come," he says. "I didn't know Africa and, up until now, this has been a very positive experience; the conditions in the camp are good."

At the entry points to the academy and spread around inside, Spanish legionnaires keep watch. Movements into and out of the camp are closely controlled.

We are instilling values; what ot means to respect another person's life"

In Mali, the war against the terrorist groups and jihadists who have occupied the north of the country for the past year continues to rage. The Spanish soldiers arrived in the country on April 13. In total 50 Spanish troops have been posted to Koulikoro, a quiet area away from the fighting that is around 60 kilometers outside the capital of Bamako.

The Spanish contingent is the third biggest here, after those of France and Germany. Of them, 15 are members of the Special Operations Command, based in Alicante, and who are technically in charge of training. The others are 35 legionnaires from the Eighth Company of the Third Regiment, based in Viator, Almería, who are responsible for the security of the installations and the actual training itself. There are also nine officers in military headquarters - seven in Bamako, one in Koulikoro and another in Brussels.

Situated beside the River Niger, the Main State Military Academy has in recent days been turned into a kind of military Babel - with a notable African touch. Germans, Czechs, Cypriots, French, Britons, Spaniards, Greeks... In total around 400 military personnel from 22 European countries: 50 staff officers, 200 instructors and 150 responsible for security. They share space in Koulikoro with the first 673 Malian soldiers who will be trained to be deployed in the northern regions that have already been recovered from the jihadist groups. To those will be added the soldiers who already occupied the base and live there with their families.

Every morning, the activity of the European instructors - or that of the German soldiers in charge of the camp hospital - mixes with the children going to school or the wives of the Malian soldiers, who prepare sandwiches at improvised food stalls.

Lieutenant-Colonel Antonio Varo is the officer in charge of the Spanish troops in Koulikoro. "We have had to do some work on the camp in order for it to be capable of hosting so many people, but always in coordination with the Malians. In the end, this new infrastructure will remain here for them," he explains.

We were dealing with an unstructured army, weakened by lack of investment"

The military academy has five or so buildings for accommodation and offices, but the training grounds are enormous. Every morning, the troops get up at 5.30am, have breakfast and train from 8am to 7pm. "One of the problems with the Malian army is its lack of training and cohesion. We do trips of 36 hours because the soldiers ought to get used to all the conditions. As well as military techniques, we are instilling values in them; what it means to be soldier, to respect the life of another person, and so on, so that later they can in turn become trainers themselves," Varo adds.

As well as training 2,000 Malian soldiers, the European Union Training Mission (EUTM) will offer advice to help improve the army's abilities - an experience copied from the training mission in Somalia, which has also been carried out in Uganda, and in which Spain already has an important involvement. Lieutenant-Colonel Gabino Regalado landed in Mali on February 8 to prepare the ground for the EUTM and is the Spanish officer responsible for coordination from Bamako. "In reality it is about fully rebuilding Mali's armed forces. As soon as we arrived, we did an audit and we realized that we were dealing with an army that is unstructured, weakened by a lack of investment and a culture of immediacy," he says. "Spain is making an important effort in this mission, which is set to last 15 months, after which Mali's armed forces will be capable of maintaining the sovereignty of their territory themselves."

The material needed for the mission has been arriving step by step. On April 21, 14 containers arrived by train from Dakar having been brought by sea from Spain. Hours later, a plane that had taken off from Gando base on Gran Canaria landed at Bamako airport carrying sensitive material. The last plane arrived on April 22.

Also on the ground are nine LMV Lince vehicles, which have already been used in Afghanistan and Lebanon and boast special armor and other such systems to protect against explosive attacks.

"Our training, which will reach four Malian battalions, is adapted to the material that they have at their disposal," says Varo. In the first phase, the Spanish troops will be responsible for teaching commando techniques, but in the second phase they will move on to teaching the handling of mortars and light artillery.

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