Gallery: Estonian Special Operations Forces platoon in Mali

Estonia must contribute with allies in Mali so Islamic extremists cannot establish support points in Africa. If they were to succeed, the next step would be to begin developing a caliphate, Margus Kuul of the Estonian Defence Forces (EDF) writes.

In September 2019, on the Ministry of Defense's proposal, the Estonian government decided to increase the EDF's participation in the French-led Operation Barkhane in Mali. A decision to contribute strategic capabilities and to send Estonian special forces to cooperate with French special forces in advising the armed forces of Mali.

Thus, the Estonian special forces, together with other EDF specialists, joined Task Force Takuba in July 2020. Teaching and advising Malian soldiers, they fulfilled their role of capability multiplying. The tasks of this task force is to organize trainings, give military advice and to provide support to the Malian armed forces in special operations against terrorists founding an Islamic State.

Knowledge of the local conditions

You need experienced and well-trained committed special forces and specialists for these tasks. Besides the well-trained military pedagogy (tell, show, do, apply) in the EDF, they must also speak the local language. This is especially true for special forces units, as the local language helps fulfill their tasks.

Special forces must also understand Malian culture and religion. All this supports knowledge of a foreign environment - all this in order to achieve confidence in allies. This also helps better advise Malian officers and troops in planning for special operations. If necessary, they must be instructed in difficult situations on tough terrain.

Experiences the Special Operations Forces has received from Afghanistan and Senegal help in the performance of these tasks. Learning experiences have also been shared with other NATO units while training together. By now, we can count on the valuable experience of each following Mali rotation for any possible future challenges.

The best recognition for Estonian and French special forces are the results of conducted operations. The effectiveness of Task Force Takuba has been recognized by our allied French generals, also.

Maximum chance of success

The first Estonian special forces unit deployed in Mali with a similar French special forces unit in July. Together, the cornerstone for further development of Task Force Takuba was laid. At the same time, Malian armed forces recruited a company called ULRI (unité légère de reconnaissance et d'intervention). European special forces began to mentor its units.

In principle, it is a light mobile intelligence and strike unit. Most Malians had previous military training. Estonian and French special forces were left with the task of harmonizing company training and raising the level of general training. All this to maximize the chances of success of future special operations.

Trainings were made up of shooting exercises, medical training, training of transport vehicles' use and the movement of light units on terrain. Additionally, there was consistent advising on the so-called "without gunfire" level.

In the first stage, prior to special operations, we learned to understand the local culture, customs and reasoning. This laid the foundation for understanding on the battlefield and for the sense of trust and companionship.

The skill of listening

It is important to note that advising and supporting in special operations means increasing the capabilities of Malian armed forces. Increasing morale needed for combat helps manage independently. Equally important to note is that the Malian company is not a separate unit ran by special forces, but is an equal partner unit, knowledgeable about the battlefield and local conditions.

Advising in special operations is never a unilateral process. On the contrary, it all begins with the skill to learn and listen to locals. It is a skill in itself. Many are taught this in pedagogy lessons, but special forces actually apply it.

Therefore, the recommendations of the Malian company leadership about how to operate in the local conditions must be listened to before all. Only then can special forces instruct in planning, preparation and implementation. The Malian confidence grew during special operations. That is the main goal - local fighters must be able to carry out their tasks independently.

Terrorism does not recognize borders

The Malian climate also deserves a mention. The task force rotation began at a time when temperature reached up to 50 degrees. The period of rain following a drought was more wet than usual in the Sahel region and it imposed restrictions. Special operations with Malians took us hundreds of kilometers from our main base of operations to the Sahara Desert. Knowing the terrain was critical to smooth movement.

The descriptions of French special forces were sharp: One day of rain equals three days of impassable terrain. Considering and knowing local conditions, a three-week operation was organized in the southern region of Liptako. By dimensions, the territory was similar to Estonia's. In tough conditions, 1,200 km was covered and 2,800 l of water was consumed.

Task Force Takuba's units have strategic effect in the fight against terrorism. Terrorism does not recognize borders. Islamic terror organizations want to rebuild the Islamic State, created in 2014 and later crushed, in the Sahel region. Overwhelming Europe with a wave of terror is a key part of Islamic State strategy.

For this to not happen, we must contribute along with our allies in Mali. We must keep Islamic extremists from establishing support points in Africa. If they were to succeed, the next step would be to begin developing a caliphate. Special operations are always in key strategic locations. There, it is most effective to prevent threats by fighting the Islamists with our allies.


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Editor: Kristjan Kallaste

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