KOULIKORO, Mali (Reuters) - Under a blazing sun and the critical gaze of British and Irish instructors, a line of 11 Malian soldiers lie prone in the dust firing AK-47 rounds at targets, one-by-one.
“One out of 10 - not very good,” Captain Ibrahim Soumassa, commander of the Malian unit, tells one of the men. “We’re at 25 meters. When we’re at 100, it’ll be difficult.”
A European Union training mission faces a considerable challenge as it seeks to succeed where years of U.S. instruction failed by turning Mali’s rag-tag army into a force capable of facing an Islamist threat stretching across the Sahara.
Years of corruption and neglect led the army to a string of defeats against al Qaeda-linked militants last year, leaving northern Mali under Islamist control and sparking a military coup by disgruntled officers in the capital, Bamako.
Only a lightning intervention in January by France - which warned that the al Qaeda enclave posed a threat to Europe - dislodged the well-armed Islamist fighters from northern Mali’s towns. Paris now plans to pull out most of its troops and hand over to a United Nations peacekeeping force.
But the EU overhaul of Mali’s army - one battalion of 700 men at a time - is at the heart of long-term efforts to keep the nation’s desert north free not only of Islamist militants but also of traffickers ferrying cocaine, contraband and illegal immigrants into Europe.
General Carter Ham, speaking in January before handing over leadership of the U.S. military command in Africa, recognized the United States had failed during years of counter-terrorism training in Mali to pass on “values, ethics and military ethos”.
Whereas U.S. instructors focused on training individuals in strategy and tactics, the EU’s priority is forging units from scratch and building cohesive units, said Lt. Col. Philippe de Cussac, spokesman for the EU training mission in Mali (EUTM).
“We need to rebuild confidence between the officers and their soldiers,” Cussac said. “This unit will remain together for several years. The cohesion we bring to it will make all the difference.”
Away from the shooting range, French soldiers teach Malians how to patrol, man checkpoints and raid buildings. EU officers are also working in the army headquarters to audit and strengthen the chain of command, which ruptured when junior officers toppled the president in a coup in March last year.
But the 12.3 million euro EU program will train just 2,100 men, and questions are being asked about who will complete the job. After the army lost much equipment to advancing rebels, the costly task of kitting it out must also be addressed.
The EU cannot provide hardware but is acting as a clearing house for donations from France, Belgium and Cyprus.
“The U.S. was too narrowly focused on counterterrorism capabilities and missed the bigger picture - that we were building a paper tiger,” said Todd Moss, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and a former U.S. State Department official.
“The EU focus on building a foundation for the security forces is welcome, but it’s a larger and more ambitious project that will require resources and staying power. Will they have it? I just don’t know.”
EU officials say they are building on their success in training 3,000 Somali soldiers in Uganda to form the core of the national army which, alongside peacekeepers, has pushed back al Qaeda-linked militants.
In Mali, a battalion will get 10, not 27, weeks’ training before deploying. EU officials say this is due to the rush to return an army presence to the north and also because Mali’s soldiers have more experience than Somalia’s new recruits.
The task in Mali is both delicate and daunting, requiring deep changes in a country long touted as a model democracy in Africa until last year’s crisis laid bare a pervasive web of corruption.
Captain Amadou Sanogo, who led last year’s coup, has been named head of the committee overseeing military reforms but European officers refuse to have any interaction with him.
Reuters journalists in northern Mali saw soldiers struggle to beat back raids by even a handful of Islamist gunmen. In one case, they ran out of ammunition before French troops intervened to save them.
Rights groups have also accused the army of ethnic reprisals against Tuaregs, and other rights abuses.
In one class on checkpoints, a Malian soldier enthusiastically beat a colleague pretending to be a suspect, drawing chuckles from classmates but a chastening from a French instructor. Human rights experts give weekly lectures to ensure soldiers are aware of the basic laws of war.
EU officers say the inclusion of 90 Tuaregs in the ranks of the first battalion is a sign that steps are being taken to ensure the minority northern community is not marginalized in the new army.
Lt. Col. Yacouba Sanogo, commander of the first battalion being trained, said the EU mission was already bearing fruit.
“Before, there was not the confidence between soldiers. But now, we have each other’s backs covered,” Sanogo said, with a hint of pride, as top brass from Brussels inspected his men.
Editing by Daniel Flynn and Kevin Liffey