West Africa approves sending 3,300 troops to battle in Mali


NAIROBI, Kenya — Earlier this summer, Mali’s Islamist militant northern rebels abandoned their southernmost position, the town of Douentza, some 100 miles northeast up the road from Mopti, where the Malian army had retreated this spring after being routed out of the northern two-thirds of the country.

But rather than moving into Douentza, the Malian army did not budge. Instead, pro-government militiamen held the town for one month before northern rebels belonging to the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa stormed down in vehicles and disarmed them without a fight in the beginning of September.

“Our army has been defeated in the north, humiliated and divided,” said Ibrahim Garongo, the secretary general of the pro-government militia, Ganda Iso, or “Sons of the Land,” who are based at a former youth camp outside of town. “We are here to support the army.”

On Sunday, West Africa approved a plan to send 3,300 troops to Mali, where an area the size of Texas is now controlled by al-Qaida-linked rebels after a military coup in March.

The intervention plan will now go to the African Union, which could contribute even more troops, and then finally to the United Nations Security Council, which had given the West African bloc, the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, until the end of November to submit a viable intervention plan for consideration.

But the biggest holdup likely will not be getting enough foreign troops on the ground, but getting the Malian army up to speed after a military coup that tore apart its command structure and what little was left of its professionalism, said Western and African officials.

That it was a militia, not the regular army, that moved up to retake Douentza for one month shows just how far the Malian military has fallen. Ganda Iso is not a formidable force; its leadership estimates it has 1,200 men ready to fight, but it admits that it only has enough guns to undergo brief training, not to fight.

Yet it is the government itself that is encouraging the rise of the community militias, of which Ganda Iso is one of several. The Malian army has given the leaders of Ganda Iso homes and assigned them trainers.

Ganda Iso, like all of the militias, is known to represent certain ethnic groups of northern Mali’s diverse bloodlines. The militia’s leaders speak superciliously of lighter-skinned Tuareg and Arabs, against whom the militia was originally founded years ago to fight.