The Pentagon confirmed Friday that all U.S. special operations forces in Mali are safe amid an attempt by rogue military forces to topple the east African nation’s civilian government.
“We do have SOF personnel in country and they’ve ceased all activity,” says a senior Pentagon official. “I don’t know if they’ve departed, but as of [Thursday], they had not. Additionally, all were accounted for.”
The Pentagon official did not disclose the number of SOF personnel in Mali, but special operations deployments typically include small numbers of troops.
The elite American commandos find themselves in the middle of a tense situation. Rogue Malian soldiers, reportedly angry at the civilian regime's handling of an uprising in the nation's north, said Friday they have seized control of the government.
As recently as last month, U.S. special operations troops were in Mali. Elite commandos from the 19th Special Forces Group, based in Utah, worked with Malian and other African militaries on missions where supplies are dropped into hostile areas from the air. A photo on an U.S. Army website shows a U.S. soldier observing Malian troops.
The Obama administration issued a stern statement Friday condemning the coup attempt.
"The United States condemns the military seizure of power in Mali. We echo the statements of the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States and other international partners denouncing these actions," State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland said in a statement. "We call for calm and the restoration of the civilian government under constitutional rule without delay so that elections can proceed as scheduled."
The Obama administration continues to believe in the "legitimately elected government of President Amadou Toumani Toure," Nuland said. "Mali is a leading democracy in West Africa and its institutions must be respected."
The U.S. government pegs the size of Mali's military at 7,000 soldiers, according to a State Department fact sheet.
"A few Malians receive military training in the United States, France and Germany," according to the State Department. "The United States provides equipment and training to Mali's military with the aim of increasing Mali's capacity to meet its own security challenges."
As part of a counterterrorism effort in Trans-Sahara Africa that includes Mali and eight other nations, U.S. military and government personnel have worked with Malian forces to counter extremist groups, "discrediting terrorist ideology," and improve nations' military cooperation, according to U.S. Africa Command.
More specifically, the U.S. military "helped train and equip one rapid-reaction company, about 150 soldiers, in each of the four Saharan states to enhance border capabilities against arms smuggling, drug trafficking, and the movement of trans-national terrorists," according to the command.
“At this moment, the U.S. is pausing any planned military equipment or training programs to the Malian military,” Patrick Barnes, a U.S. Africa Command spokesman, tells U.S. News & World Report.
More broadly, nearly $200 million in annual U.S. military and humanitarian--including combat training--assistance hangs in the balance. Washington sends Mali about $170 billion a year in assistance, funds that go to everything from agriculture development to military training for counterterrorism work, according to State Department and USAID budget documents.
State Department officials on Friday were taking a wait-and-see approach, declining to pull all American assistance dollars until it becomes clear whether the attempted military coup will succeed.
The Millennium Challenge Corp., a U.S. government diplomatic entity set up in 2004 to promote economic development across the globe, went a step further. The organization cut off the remaining aid dollars Mali was set to receive this year under a five-year, $461 million agreement forged in late 2006.
"The unconstitutional actions taken by elements of the armed forces of Mali are in direct conflict with MCC's commitment to democratic governance and the rule of law," CEO Daniel Yohannes said in a statement.
The corporation will cease its work in the African nation while it monitors the coup attempt, Yohannes said. "MCC maintains compact partnerships only with countries that demonstrate a clear commitment to good governance, economic freedom and investing in their citizens," he said.
Just several weeks ago, Millennium Challenge touted success there, issuing a fact sheet headlined: "Prosperity Takes Root in Mali." The three-page document declared "the region is being transformed into a thriving hub of rice and vegetable production that will improve the lives of farmers and strengthen the country's food security."
It remains to be seen whether the political instability will threaten or even reverse such economic gains.