With only 6,000 poorly equipped troops, the Malian armed forces have always struggled to maintain control of their territory, about twice the size of Texas. Repeated famines and rebellions by Tuareg nomads only exacerbated the instability.
About six years ago, the Pentagon began bolstering its overt aid and training programs in Mali, as well as its clandestine operations.
Under a classified program code-named Creek Sand, dozens of U.S. personnel and contractors were deployed to West Africa to conduct surveillance missions over the country with single-
engine aircraft designed to look like civilian passenger planes.
In addition, the military flew spy flights over Mali and other countries in the region with longer-range P-3 Orion aircraft based in the Mediterranean, according to classified U.S. diplomatic cables obtained by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.
In what would have represented a significant escalation of U.S. military involvement in Mali, the Pentagon also considered a secret plan in 2009 to embed American commandos with Malian ground troops, diplomatic cables show.
Under that program, code-named Oasis Enabler, U.S. military advisers would conduct anti-terrorism operations alongside elite, American-trained Malian units. But the idea was rejected by Gillian A. Milovanovic, the ambassador to Mali at the time.
In an October 2009 meeting in Bamako with Vice Adm. Robert T. Moeller, deputy chief of the Africa Command, the ambassador called the plan “extremely problematic,” adding that it could create a popular backlash and “risk infuriating” neighbors such as Algeria.
Furthermore, Milovanovic warned that the U.S. advisers “would likely serve as lightning rods, exposing themselves and the Malian contingents to specific risk,” according to a State Department cable summarizing the meeting.
Moeller replied that he “regretted” that the ambassador had not been kept better informed and said Oasis Enabler was “a work in progress.” It is unclear whether the plan was carried out.
Since then, however, security in Mali has deteriorated sharply. After the coup in March, extremist Muslim guerrillas in northern Mali declared an independent Islamist state. They have imposed sharia law and have begun enforcing strict social codes that include compulsory beards for men and a ban on television.
In the fabled desert city of Timbuktu, al-Qaeda sympathizers have destroyed ancient mausoleums and attacked other shrines as part of a religious cleansing campaign. Western aid workers have abandoned the northern half of the country after a string of kidnappings.
Thousands of Malians have fled to refugee camps in neighboring countries.
A fatal plunge
The three soldiers riding through Bamako in April had rented their 2010 Toyota Land Cruiser from a local agency, according to written statements provided to The Post by the Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg.
Bast was in the driver’s seat and was headed south across the Martyrs Bridge. Preliminary investigative results determined that he lost control of the Land Cruiser, which broke through the bridge’s guard rail and landed in the river below.
Also in the vehicle were three Moroccan women, according to the Army’s statement. Contributing factors in the accident, the Army said, were limited visibility and “a probable evasive maneuver on the part of the vehicle’s driver to avoid impacting with slower moving traffic.”
The soldiers died of “blunt force trauma” when the vehicle landed upside down in the shallow river, crushing the roof, the Army said.
The Special Operations Command said it could not answer questions about where the soldiers were going, nor why they were traveling with the unidentified Moroccan women, saying the matter is under investigation.
Larson-Kone, the embassy spokeswoman, said the soldiers were on “personal, not business-related travel” at the time, but she declined to provide details. Officials from the Africa Command also said that they did not know who the women were, but they added in a statement: “From what we know now, we have no reason to believe these women were engaged in acts of prostitution.”
Coincidentally, the incident occurred less than a week after President Obama’s visit to a summit in Cartagena, Colombia, where U.S. military personnel and Secret Service agents became embroiled in a scandal involving prostitutes.
Little details not adding up
At least two of the soldiers in Mali had been trained as communications or intelligence specialists.
Bast, the master sergeant, was a ham radio hobbyist who originally joined the Navy before switching to the Army several years ago. An Army spokesman described him as a “communications expert” and said he was posthumously given the Meritorious Service Medal but declined to say why.
Myrthil was a native of Haiti who joined the Army two decades ago. Military officials released virtually no details about his service record.