BRUSSELS — The general leading the European Union training mission to Mali said Tuesday that molding the country's army into a cohesive and effective force will entail "a huge amount of work."
A small team of advisers from the EU has been evaluating the Malian army since February 18. And its needs, said Brig. Gen. Francois Lecointre, the mission commander, are "considerable."
"It is the army of a very poor country," Lecointre told reporters. "And the army is very much underequipped and underendowed in budgetary terms."
Now that it is seeing combat, as French and African troops work to wrest control of northern Mali from radical Islamists and other rebel groups, it has come "face-to-face with its shortcomings," Lecointre said. Among them, he said, are a shortage of basic equipment, such as arms, vehicles and radios, and a poor ability to plan and execute military campaigns.
Officials said the commitment of EU member countries to the training mission remained strong despite fierce fighting in the north of the country, where three French soldiers have been killed since the French operation began in January.
Peteris Ustubs, the EU's top diplomat for West and Central Africa, said he had seen no sign of EU members pulling back on their commitments to send personnel to Mali. And Lecointre said the trainers would be "well back from the front lines" and would not see combat, though a terrorist attack would be conceivable.
The goal of the mission is to train four battalions – half of the Malian army – so the army can keep the country secure. A battalion can include anywhere from 300 to 1,000 soldiers.
Lecointre said the Malian army includes about 6,000 soldiers; 4,000 others are support personnel.
"This army has to be completely restructured," he said. "Today, it acts more as a somewhat disparate set of elements, put together on request and on an emergency basis in order to cope with a tough combat situation ... It's not an army as such."
Restructuring it will be an "immense task," he said. The army needs to observe strict subordination to the political sphere, and trust needs to be restored between the army's high command and the troops, he said.
In March 2012, the army took power in a coup. It ostensibly handed power back to civilians, but then in December it arrested the prime minister, who announced his resignation on state television after soldiers had stormed his house.
The army has now pledged to return the country to democracy.
The EU mission will be composed of about 550 people, with about 200 of them being trainers, the rest being there to provide such elements as protection and medical care.
Each battalion will be trained an average of 2 1/2 months, Lecointre said. And two or three months after the training has been completed, an operational assessment of the battalion will be conducted to determine whether it is continuing to improve, he said.
Training is scheduled to start April 2.