Mali soldiers are poorly trained, badly equipped and ill-prepared for battle with Islamist militants. EU military trainers will have to make up for these shortcomings, but there are doubts whether they will succeed.
The Council of Ministers of the European Union gave the project the green light on January 17. The EU is to dispatch between 400 and 450 military personnel to Mali to train that country's army.
Preparations are underway and the training is expected to begin in March. With Mali plunging deeper into war, this sounds as if too little is being done far too late. French forces, together with Malian Army, have been fighting the rebels for more than two weeks now.
But Richard Zink, head of the EU delegation in Mali, denies that the mission has been slow off the mark. "By EU standards this is a very fast mission. It is not a military intervention, but a training mission," he said.
It is not unusual for the EU to train African soldiers. European instructors trained Somalian troops for more two years.
"According to the information we obtained this was one of our most successful projects," Zink said.
Desertions after US anti-terror course
But there are doubts whether that success in Somalia can be replicated in Mali. The West African state has already received military aid from Europe and the United States in the past.
One such mission is unlikely to be forgotten. The Malian army was being trained by the US military to fight terrorism in and around the city of Timbuktu.
Professor Modibo Goita, lecturer at the school of peacekeeping in Bamako, describes what happened. "As far as I'm aware, more than 80 Malian soldiers deserted after the training course, taking their weapons and baggage with them."
The deserters joined the Liberation Movement of Azawad, (MNLA), the group that was engaged in clashes with Malian government forces in early 2012. The MNLA was allegedly involved in a particularly bloody massacre in January of that year. The victims were mostly Malian government troops.
Exact army strength unknown
Professor Goita has no easy explanation for this bloodshed. He suggests it might be an example of how the process of national integration in Mali has failed. Following the two Tuareg separatist uprisings, there were efforts to assimilate the Tuaregs into the Malian state.
Many Tuaregs were allowed to join the Malian army, even though they lacked the necessary training. "It was all done in a spirit of national reconciliation," Giota said.
Failed integration of Tuareg separatists is not the only problem facing the Malian army. Nobody seems to be aware of its exact strength. Rough estimates put its size at between 4,000 and 6,500 troops and it is apparently impossible to check this figure.
The army has been split since the coup on March 22, 2012. Not all soldiers believe that coup leader Amadou Haya Sanogo acted correctly when taking power into his own hands.
The dramatic developments in northern Mali have raised awareness of the need for a well-equipped fighting force. Richard Zink believes this will work to the advantage of the EU military trainers. "Malians are open to outside help. That's our chance."