Mali Forces
A French-speaking Special Forces NCO helps train a Malian counter-terrorism unit in 2010, two years before a government coup upended Mali's progress. JSOTF-TS Public Affairs

The European Union is warming up to the idea of sending its own troops to Mali, a West African country where Islamist insurgents have taken over a swath of land the size of France.

On Thursday, EU member nations France, Italy, Spain, Poland and Germany – collectively called ‘Weimar Plus’ — approved a tentative plan for EU troops to help train Malian forces in the buildup to an African-led intervention.

Northern Mali was overtaken by insurgent groups earlier this year, a process hastened by a military coup of the civilian government in the capital city of Bamako in March. Though the insurgency was spearheaded by a nomadic ethnic group called the Tuaregs, the seized land was quickly usurped by Islamist groups who imposed a harsh version of Shariah, or Islamic law, across the region.

This has caused a humanitarian crisis for Malians in the north, turmoil for the democratic government that had been a point of pride in the south, and a security threat for the entire region – and the world – as radicals linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, begin to put down roots in the seized territory.

The Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, came up with a plan for military intervention on Sunday that will see 3,300 troops – mostly from Nigeria, Niger and Burkina Faso – help Malians retake their northern land. It is still pending approval from the United Nations Security Council.

But in a note of support on Thursday, the Weimar Plus group acknowledged that EU troops may also be required to help defeat the Malian insurgency. Their approval came in the form of a Thursday report from a meeting of the five countries’ defense officials.

“We encourage our partners to enhance efforts for a political solution to the Malian crisis, as well as to contribute to a possible training mission to support the Malian armed forces, in line with the Foreign Affairs Council’s conclusions of the 15th of October,” said the statement.

That Oct. 15 council report requested that “work on planning a possible CSDP [Common Security and Defense Policy] military operation be pursued and extended as a matter of urgency, in particular by developing a crisis management concept relating to the reorganization and training of the Malian defense forces.”

In other words, five powerful EU nations have just given a vague sign of approval to a tentative proposal to send troops to help end the insurgency in Mali.

This seems to contradict statements from France, Mali's former colonial master and a European leader on Africa policy. As recently as Tuesday, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that French or European direct military intervention was out of the question.

“As for air support, neither Europe nor France will intervene militarily," he said then, according to the AP. "When we say no troops on the ground, that means `troops in the air' too ... But bringing in information, intelligence is another thing."

Le Drian may be drawing a distinction between trainers and combat troops; the former may be still on the table while the latter are not. The details remain murky, as no particular plan has been approved. That will be discussed further at a Nov. 19 conference of European foreign and defense ministers.

A plan for EU intervention has plenty of critics, who point out that this is not the first time Western countries have tried to shape events in Mali.

American and French troops have been working in Mali for years to help bolster its forces – until the unexpected coup in March. But even with that history of assistance, the Malian military has had virtually no success in combating the insurgency up north. This is partly due to a disintegration in the chain of command following the Bamako coup.

According to the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, U.S. observers recently described a military outpost in northern Mali in less-than-glowing terms.

“Living conditions on the base are ... harsh. Meals for the troops consist of sandy rice with bean sauce,” said their report. "Lacking shelter, the troops sleep under their vehicles, and often run short of drinking water."

But in order to participate in the regional offensive against northern insurgents, the troops – beginning with the government that supplies them – will have to shape up. Gen. Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command, or Africom, said recently that the Malian military will need months of training to prepare for a confrontation with the estimated 800 to 1,200 “hardline fighters” in the north, according to the Associated Press.

Those fighters are well aware that both African and European militaries are gearing up to oust them. Residents of northern Mali have noted that in recent months, the insurgents have ramped up their training exercises, painted camouflage patterns on their vehicles, and summoned trucks full of like-minded militants from across the Sahel, the zone of semi-arid land south of the Sahara Desert.

An ECOWAS offensive in Mali isn’t likely to kick off until next year. Until then, the EU may take a quiet role in helping the Malian military get its act together.

As explained in the Weimer Plus statement on Thursday, “We share the view that providing support to regional organizations and local authorities to strengthen stability in ungoverned or fragile areas reinforces the security of EU citizens and interests.”