The U.S. military is wrapping up what appears to have been a highly-successful counter-terrorist training program in Mali and Mauritania. But, uncertainty lingers over the next phase of the special initiative set for later this year in Chad and Niger.
Elite U.S. Army Special Forces troops carried out the counter-terrorist training that is ending this week in Mali and Mauritania under the State Department's Pan-Sahel Initiative.
But it is uncertain whether military or civilian trainers will be sent to Chad and Niger for the next phase of the program.
And a senior Pentagon official concedes, if civilian trainers are sent, it could be interpreted in Africa as a sign that the Bush administration is ambivalent about the program or lacks genuine interest in carrying it out.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs Theresa Whelan says African officials consider it a badge of honor to be trained by the American military. She says the use of civilian trainers does not carry the same "psychological boost" and would result in the loss of beneficial military-to-military connections.
The Pentagon says it would prefer to send military trainers to Chad and Niger, but admits it might have to send civilian trainers due to cost considerations.
A firm called PAE has already been awarded a contract to provide support services to the Pan-Sahel Initiative, including the maintenance of some military equipment provided to forces in Mali and Mauritania.
PAE has also been identified as the firm that could carry out the actual counter-terrorist training in Chad and Niger, even though a spokesman for U.S. Marine Corps forces based in Europe tells VOA the Marines are prepared to carry out the training.
A spokesman for the State Department, sponsors of the Pan-Sahel Initiative, says the State Department expects the Marines, not civilians, to do the training.
But the State Department spokesman acknowledges "it is not finalized."
He says additional funds are available for the nearly $8 million Pan-Sahel program. But he concedes those additional funds have already been earmarked for the PAE firm.
PAE has been involved in other Defense Department programs in Africa, including the training of African forces for peacekeeping operations in Sierra Leone. The firm also provided support for African peacekeepers and for U.S. Marines sent to Liberia last year.
For their part, the Marines, long admired for their warrior ethos, have most recently been involved in a counter-terrorist training program in Georgia.