In 2007, the Bush administration created a separate Africa Command to oversee military activity on the continent, fueling fears among Africans that the United States was militarizing its foreign policy and looking to construct new bases. Facing a backlash, the Pentagon was forced to call off its search for an African headquarters for the command. It remained in Germany, instead.
The new command was largely a paper institution, with no regular troops assigned to it. Charles Wald, a retired four-star Air Force general, said the whole approach was misguided.
“The Africans didn't want us there in the first place, so they started out behind the power curve to start with,” he said. “We can't lead them around condescendingly.”
In 2008, the Government Accountability Office criticized the Pentagon, State Department and USAID for lacking a “comprehensive, integrated strategy” for the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership. The investigative arm of Congress found the agencies didn't collaborate well and couldn't measure whether the aid was doing any good.
A senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk candidly about the $1 billion Saharan counterterrorism strategy, acknowledged that it was hard to measure the program's effectiveness. “To be very honest with you, we're not very good at quantifying it.”
The program focused heavily on Mali, a landlocked, famine-prone country that American officials worried was vulnerable to Islamist extremists coming south from Algeria.
The U.S. military engaged the Malians in annual regional military exercises, code-named Flintlock. U.S. Special Forces also spent years training specialized Malian units, known as ETIAs. But the challenges were evident.
In 2009, after a graduation ceremony for one ETIA unit that had received five weeks of instruction from U.S. troops, the ambassador to Mali at the time, Gillian Milovanovic, expressed shock at the bedraggled appearance of the Malian soldiers.
In a classified diplomatic cable later made public by WikiLeaks, Milovanovic described how a U.S. Army captain introduced her to “one, rather unimpressive soldier, an older, rail thin man with a scraggly beard and bloodshot eyes who had been lounging against a motorbike in a dirty T-shirt inside a warehouse. (The captain) explained that in spite of appearances, this was one of the ETIA's best men, noting that he had been one of the few survivors of a July 4 ambush of a Malian Army patrol by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.”
The ambassador also observed how the Malians were poorly clothed and equipped, even though the U.S. government had bought boots, desert fatigues, radios and Toyota Land Cruisers for the entire unit of about 160 men.
Many of the soldiers were black-skinned Malians from the south who had little familiarity with the Arab and Tuareg tribes that populate the north. In hindsight, U.S. officials said they should have recognized that the black troops would clash with the Tuaregs, who have a long history of grievances against the Malian central government, instead of al-Qaida. But few of the American Special Forces instructors were conversant in local culture or native languages and didn't pick up the cues.
“That's the key ingredient that was always missing in this, and is only now coming to light — would they really fight?” said Rudolph Atallah, director of African counterterrorism programs in the Pentagon from 2003 to 2009. “There was no thought about taking the cultural piece a little bit deeper.”
There were also clear signs that the Malian government had little interest in fighting al-Qaida. Suspicions abounded among U.S. officials and other diplomats that Malian leaders were pocketing a portion of the ransoms that Belmokhtar and other jihadists collected from their kidnapping schemes.
“We made a big effort to build the political will in Mali, and it never succeeded,” said a senior Obama administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They always told us what they thought we wanted to hear, but they never followed it up with actions.”
The U.S. strategy for the region began to fall apart in 2009.
Military leaders in Mauritania and Niger — two countries that bookend Mali — toppled their governments in coups, forcing the Pentagon to cut off military training.
That left the United States more dependent on Mali to spearhead its anti-terrorism programs, even as it was becoming clear that Malian troops weren't up to the task.
“It was an awful, stupid strategy we had by then,” said Huddleston. “You obviously couldn't fight terrorism with one weak army that didn't want to fight in the north.”
The Obama administration made things tougher by restricting intelligence-sharing with France and Algeria, key countries allied against al-Qaida, according to former U.S. officials.
American military officers chafed at the restrictions, but often failed to earn the trust of U.S. ambassadors in the region, said the former Special Operations Forces member.
“Quite frankly, we weren't used to dealing with the Department of State and other agencies,” he said. “When we get on the ground, they run the show, and that's what we struggled with.”
By 2011, Mali's security was visibly deteriorating as Tuareg mercenaries and Islamist extremists flooded into the north and domestic political strife came to a boil. After the March coup, Washington severed all security aid to the Malian military.
Even now, disagreement persists inside the Obama administration over whether the threat posed by Belmokhtar and other al-Qaida loyalists in northern Mali warrant a more forceful response by the U.S. military. The White House has ruled out sending combat troops to Mali, but the Pentagon is making plans for a Predator drone base next door.
“Nobody's arguing that they should be left unmolested,” said the senior State Department official. “But if they're stuck in the middle of Mali's northern mountains, that in itself doesn't matter.”