Bundeswehr: Without a strategy in Mali: It's getting lonely for Germany

The Nigerien special forces come roaring up in new armored cars and immediately start the storm: carefully securing and highly mobile, the seven men push their way along the wall of a house towards a staircase and take up room after room in a training facility.

Bundeswehr: Without a strategy in Mali: It's getting lonely for Germany

The Nigerien special forces come roaring up in new armored cars and immediately start the storm: carefully securing and highly mobile, the seven men push their way along the wall of a house towards a staircase and take up room after room in a training facility.

Blank cartridges pop, screams penetrate the walls in front of which the German Inspector General Eberhard Zorn and the Nigerien special forces commander, Brigadier General Moussa Salaou Barmou, have set up as observers. The Africans trained by German combat swimmers also show in a realistic manner how an injured person would be cared for in the middle of the skirmish.

Many millions for "Gazelle"

The "Gazelle" training mission, which began in 2018, is considered a flagship project with its special forces school in Tillia. About 900 Nigerians have completed the courses. Since 2018, Germany has provided around eight million euros for the barracks in the desert and the training facility, and around another 43 million euros for protective equipment, vehicles, radios, night vision devices and weapons.

The 41st Special Forces Battalion of Nigeria is one of the best equipped units in the country. The graduates of the training courses have long been deployed against Islamists and armed gangs, while the Republic of Niger has proven to be a partner. Only about 200 German soldiers are deployed in Tillia. For the coming year there is a firm end to this mission.

Not so in neighboring Mali, where putschists have been forming an interim government since 2021. The border - it is around 100 kilometers from Tillia - is bureaucratically insurmountable for Zorn on this trip because the visa regulations were changed at short notice and a personal visit was suddenly made mandatory. For example, Germany's top soldier cannot visit the 1,100 German blue helmets of the UN mission Minusma in Camp Castor in the Malian city of Gao.

The affront would not be so great if one confrontation had not followed the next. The Malian military rulers have sought cooperation with Russian mercenaries and have now let an estimated 1,200 to 1,500 armed Russians into the country.

Bundeswehr missing important permits

The UN blue helmets, on the other hand, are being kept on a short leash. Or specifically: The Bundeswehr can still ensure its "rescue chain" for the care of the seriously injured from Mali, but has no permits that would allow regular military operation of its A400M transport aircraft for personnel and material. The flight of the Heron drone - along with German patrols, the central instrument of the reconnaissance mission - has been prohibited for three weeks.

How long will a donor country accept this, expect it of its own soldiers and explain it to the public. The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces, Eva Högl, had already spoken of harassment and warned that Mali must not become a never-ending story.

"I'm assuming that the political decision about the future of our commitment in Mali will be made this year," said the Inspector General on his trip. And he shows enthusiasm for commitment in Niger, where the Bundeswehr is currently expanding its air transport base in Niamey. The cooperation is based "on grown trust". "Our bilateral upgrading projects and Operation Gazelle are just two examples. Gazelle is scheduled to expire at the end of the year. Political discussions are currently being held with our international partners on the type and scope of a possible follow-up engagement," says Zorn. He is "confident".

Without your own strategy and reliable partners

In a regionally aggravated situation, a central hub like the one in Niamey can continue to be an important contribution by Germany to international engagement. And such a base can also serve their own interests, for example if German special forces need a springboard to rescue their own citizens in Africa from dangerous situations.

But what next in Mali? It's getting lonelier around Germany's soldiers in the country. France has withdrawn in a dispute with the Malian government. The Swedes are gone, the Dutch want to go. It is unclear how the British will continue - also in view of the political turbulence in London. It is quite possible that Germany could ultimately end up as a leading nation without a recognizable strategy of its own and without a reliable partner - with a great moral compass in hand, but to a certain extent without a map.

The German contingent of the EU training mission EUTM Mali - sold by the federal government for years as a difficult case with hard-won successes - quietly evacuated its camp in Koulikoro about two weeks ago. This was briefly in the spotlight in February 2019 when there was an attack with rockets, handguns and motor vehicles loaded with explosives.

Relations with France getting worse

In order to push back the terrorist forces, the government in Mali, which was ousted by force, had long relied on military support from France. But at least since Assimi Goita came to power, who has been head of the interim government since May 2021 and the renewed military coup, relations with France have been getting worse and worse. Finally, the rift followed. The last French soldiers left Mali in mid-August.

Since then, Goita has been demonstratively focusing on cooperation with Russia. Most recently, he called President Vladimir Putin in early October and praised the "win-win partnership based on mutual respect" on Twitter.

"Mali is a strategically important partner for Russia because the Russian military goes directly to the front with the Malian army. Mali has always demanded this from the Europeans. The EU training mission, on the other hand, opted for a zero-risk strategy and Malian soldiers with wooden guns," says Ulf Laessing from the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Bamako, from where he is responsible for the entire Sahel zone. The large gold deposits in Mali are interesting for Russia in order to cushion the western sanctions because of the Ukraine war.

danger grows

The worsening of the crisis is palpable and fear of Islamists is high in the region, journalists report. The danger is growing especially in Mali and Burkina Faso, as the non-governmental organization ACLED recently attested. In the first half of the year alone, more people were killed in Mali than in the whole of 2021. The trend is also upwards in Burkina Faso. According to this information, only Niger shows a decline.

The combat swimmers in Tillia are - like their Nigerien partners - in unarmoured and sometimes adventurously converted Toyota SUVs, but they quickly gather dust and the lighting is taped up. In a moment, the general asks how they are protected in Tillia. The lightly armed and hooded German commando soldier replies immediately: In this case, your own speed is your protection.