GAO, Mali – The Malian patrol finally reached its objective, a small village north of Gao, following a long drive through the northern territories of vast desert in this Trans-Saharan nation slightly smaller than twice the size of Texas.
The platoon leader had been with this specially trained counter-terrorism unit, the Echelon Tactique Interarmé, or ETIA, for some time and knew his men as well as the area.
“Establish defensive positions,” he radioed in Bambara, the predominant African language in the region, signaling the patrol to establish a perimeter while he waited for the Americans following the patrol to arrive and accompany him into the village.
“Les vehicules ont bien fait (The vehicles did well),” one of the American officers, a 91st Civil Affairs Bn. captain commented in French to the Malian leader as the other American officer, the Special Operations Forces Liaison Element , or SOFLE, from the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne), looked on.
The Malian smiled and nodded. He was grateful for the all-terrain pickup trucks which had been provided by the U.S. Government the previous year to his unit to replace old vehicles which would have never been able to make this journey.
Together, the platoon leader and the four Americans greeted the village leader, an elderly Toureg who welcomed these familiar faces. This wasn’t their first time at the village and the elderly man looked forward to what they might be able to do for his deprived village.
Later that evening, the SOFLE sent his situational report to the Theater Special Operations Command’s task force and provided information regarding the vulnerable community as well as recommendations for another medical civic action program, or MEDCAP, to be conducted near the village.
This mission is an example of just one of many similar targeted missions the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Trans Sahara, or JSOTF-TS, accomplishes every year in Africa. Initiated in late 2006 by a handful of Special Operations officers, the JSOTF-TS was created as a unique organization capable of orchestrating counter-terrorism objectives under the auspices of the U.S. State Dept. initiated and led Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Partnership, or TSCTP, with its integrated three-dimensional strategy of diplomacy, development and defense.
“The overarching role of the JSOTF-TS is to orchestrate all Dept. of Defense efforts and activities toward accomplishing the TSCTP objectives, which included increasing bilateral and regional capacity in the region to defeat terrorist and extremist organizations,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Chris Call, former JSOTF-TS Operations Officer during its inception and earlier development.
Col. Call explained the unit’s initial focus was on four nations which had requested this assistance from the State Dept., but soon the TSCTP and the DoD’s Operation Enduring Freedom (Trans-Sahara) program, would encompass 10 northern and western African countries to form a Joint Operations Area slightly larger than the Continental United States.
JSOTF-TS was transferred to the newly-formed U.S. Africa Command in October 2008 and then subsequently was named a subordinate unit of Special Operations Command Africa in May 2009. Throughout this transition, the relatively small staff of about 40 uniformed personnel and civilians continued planning, coordinating and executing the full-spectrum of OEF-TS programs in the Trans-Saharan region.
This included managing more than 30 U.S. SOF-conducted military training engagements annually designed to enhance the counter-terrorism skills of pre-designated units and nearly 30 medical and about 15 veterinary civic action programs synchronized by its Civil Military Support Element in conjunction with local and national health authorities and non-governmental organizations.
The JSOTF-TS was also planning, managing and disbursing organizational equipment and vehicles to equip indigenous units in their security functions and developing as well as overseeing the JSOTF-TS created Trans-Sahara Security Symposium, an African taught week-long academic civil-military cooperation national and regional-focused forum targeted for African military and civilian representatives.
Additionally, JSOTF-TS also assumed the monumental task of planning, coordinating and executing the multi-national SOF exercise Flintlock, which evolved as AFRICOM’s premier SOF exercise on the continent.
“Flintlock is the culmination of all military training engagements conducted at the tactical level with our host nation partners, where we bring them together at the regional level under a multi-national operational headquarters,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. John Williamson, exercise planner for two Flintlock exercises. “The Flintlock exercise series was greatly enhanced with the establishment of a Multi-National Coordination Center, or MCC. The Flintlock MCC has advanced our efforts towards a regional approach to counter-terrorism in terms of operational level coordination and communication to support tactical operations in countries such as Mali, Mauritania, Senegal and Chad,” Williamson said.
“Additionally, the increased participation of our European SOF partners such as Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain in tactical training and MCC activities underscores the importance of our desire for an international approach toward trans-border terrorist threats,” he added.
The methodology of effort exerted by JSOTF-TS over the years, maintaining consultation and coordination lines with servicing U.S. Embassies and other existing civilian and military capabilities and actors in the area of responsibility, has made tangible progress.
Units in Mali and Chad, previously trained and advised by U.S. SOF teams in critical counterterrorism battle skills, now incorporate key leader engagements in consonance with civil military operations to secure vulnerable borders and vast under-governed spaces, and address the underlying conditions that provide terrorists and extremists with recruits, sanctuary and resources.
“The JSOTF-TS has consistently maintained a holistic and persistent approach toward capacity development in the region,” said U.S. Army Col. Nestor A. Sadler, current JSOTF-TS commander. “Our ‘by, with and through’ focus on security assistance reflects itself not only in the continued development of African special operations units and their ability to better secure the vast regions, both nationally and with their neighbors, but also in their awareness and approach toward a common enemy.
“Tactical and operational progress for some of these countries, which are some of the poorest in the world, demands patience and the very best of our SOF attributes. The JSOTF-TS has established and continues to further reflect that relevancy across the board and all the time,” Sadler said.
On the horizon is Flintlock 11 when African, North American and European SOF units and staffs will have another opportunity to enhance their capabilities to share information and further develop capacities in a multi-national environment, the cornerstone to regional security and stability.
“In our CT objectives, we have come to the point where African nations have become partners,” Sadler said. “Flintlock 11 will be African planned, coordinated and executed, and we welcome the opportunity to work with our African partners in our shared desire for peace, stability and security in the Trans-Saharan region.”
Flintlock 11 is scheduled to begin during winter 2011.