U.S. military forces have established a temporary operations center on a Malian air force base near Bamako. The facility is to provide logistical support and emergency services for U.S. troops training with local forces in five countries in the region.
Three hulking black U.S. helicopters sit alongside Malian aircraft at the base near Bamako's airport, on station to respond to any emergency in the five training-exercise zones. U.S. troops work on one of the helicopters, which has a mechanical problem, forcing changes in some of the exercises. The two working helicopters must remain on stand-by for medical emergencies.
There are no extra helicopters available because of the demands of the war in Iraq and the continuing U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.
The helicopter shortage also prevented the U.S. military from taking reporters to observe the exercises in the field. The commander of the American support unit in Bamako is a U.S. Army Special Forces major, who can not be named for security reasons. The major described what the troops in the field are doing.
"They are focused on basic soldier skills to prepare those units to conduct basic military security functions along their borders, land navigation, rifle marksmanship, small unit leadership type activities, the same skills that we teach our soldiers from day one," he said.
Those skills are designed to improve the African countries' ability to control their territory and deny access to terrorists.
Earlier this month, insurgents attacked Mauritanian forces near the Algerian border. The major says the attack illustrated the importance of this training, which had been scheduled months in advance.
"In my belief, that activity shows the international community the justification for the assistance that the West African nations have asked for and what the United States has provided up to this point," he said.
The commander of the Malian base, where the Americans are guests, Colonel Djiguiba Toumani Sidibe, also says the recent attack in Mauritania underscores the need for Mali to improve control over its borders.
The colonel says Mali has not experienced any terrorist attacks, but the terrorists are not far away, and Mali must be able to prevent them from entering the country.
These exercises continue through Friday, when troops from nine West African countries will participate in a command-post exercise in Dakar. The African and American troops will be confronted with a mock terrorism scenario, and will work to coordinate the responses of the various countries.