“The response has been very positive”

In an interview, Brigadier General Franz Pfrengle explains how Germany is helping to stabilise Mali.

General, Germany is at present actively involved in stabilising Mali. What specific responsibilities is Germany assuming there?

Germany currently heads two missions: the European Union Training Mission (EUTM) for the Malian Armed Forces, which is also an advisory mission, and the EUCAP Sahel Mali Mission, which is tasked with training the police in Mali.

What capabilities does the Bundeswehr, Germany’s armed forces, bring to the job?

First of all, our highly qualified instructors are directly training the Malian Armed Forces. And we are also training their instructors. In addition, we are part of the Advisory Task Force that is providing ministerial-level advice on reorganising the armed forces. We also hold many key staff positions. But to make it clear from the outset: all European Union member countries are making a contribution, so we have 24 nations working together on a daily basis. I make no distinction on that point.

There is also the MINUSMA United Nations Peacekeeping Mission. How does coordination of these missions work?

The fact that the heads of the respective missions get on well in itself provides a good basis for the three-way cooperation. We have a great deal of contact among ourselves. We frequently consult with one another – on matters like intensifying the peace process. That gives us a good idea of the progress being made in all areas.

And what concrete form does this cooperation take?

The EUCAP mission overlaps to some extent with EUTM. EUCAP is responsible for training the Gendarmerie and the ­National Guard. The Gendarmerie is deployed across the board as the local ­police force, but it also assumes purely military functions in the area of national defence. It has to work together very closely and be interoperable with the Malian Armed Forces, especially in the south of the country. To this end, EUCAP is beefing up the Gendarmerie‘s policing capabilities, and as part of the training mission we have recently set up a mixed unit to provide military training to a large Gendarmerie unit.

What kind of training is the Bundeswehr providing in Mali?

We are training the Malian Armed Forces in basic military capabilities: area ­surveillance, checkpoints, patrols, counter-ambush drill and the defence of ­specific points. A company commander training course is also currently under way. Something we always include in our training is international humanitarian law. That means Malian troops are learning that the enemy and the civilian population have rights, even in a conflict. We’ve made good progress on that score. We are getting feedback from the civilian population that the troops are behaving much better towards them.

What challenges do you face when conducting the training?

The main challenges are the equipment and level of training of the armed forces. In some cases we’ve had to begin the training at a relatively low level here. ­Another challenge is leadership behaviour, especially of those working directly with the troops. But we’ve been able to observe that the Malian troops are incredibly motivated. The real challenge is getting them, within a period of twelve weeks, to a level of training that enables them to perform their duties well in the north of the country.

What lessons have you learned so far from the mission in Mali?

Training and changing leadership behaviour are not things you can accomplish overnight. Reforming the armed forces is also something that takes time, particularly after the events of 2012. Since 2013, EUTM has quickly restored the operability of Malian Armed Forces’ units so that they can help stabilise the situation in the north of the country. What takes much longer is providing the sort of training that enables our Malian comrades to take over the job and maintain the level of quality. I always say that the four key words here are patience, passion, mutual respect and flexibility. If we take heed of that, we’ll be ready for whatever happens. But it takes time.

What was your most positive personal experience while you were in Mali?

In my 40 years of service in the armed forces, I’ve had plenty of positive experiences, but this deployment is really the best thing I’ve experienced in all that time. There have been so many positive impressions, it’s difficult to pick out just one. But it’s highly gratifying, for example, to see a young Malian NCO giving an order for a particular mission and – apart from a few minor details – making a really good job of it. The people here give you looks that say: “You’re doing a great job“. That motivation makes up for everything else. It’s fantastic to see how they “soak up” information when we’re providing training and advice. I believe our mission here is incredibly meaningful. But my best experience was the last time I was in a Malian church here in Bamako. When people realised that I was the commander of the European Training Mission, they spontaneously stood up and applauded. That shows how positive the response is to our mission, even among the Malian population.

Interview: Jan Fuhrmann