Why send a couple of Green Berets to a place no one seemed to care about?
He had nearly ten teeth. I learned that in the Sahel, the number and quality of a man’s teeth said a lot about who he was. Not that it was necessary in this case. The rusty FN rifle on his back and the mismatched bits of uniform — not to mention the makeshift checkpoint he seemed to operate complete with a line of vehicles awaiting inspection — told me everything I needed to know about this gentleman. He and his similarly adorned buddy were from the Army and they believed they had business with me. Sitting in the passenger seat of our Toyota Landcruiser, the window only partially lowered to protect me from the spittle increasingly emanating from the gap in 10-Tooth’s grill, I found my poor French clashed horribly with his Chadian Arabic. Despite the language barrier, he was crystal clear he wanted precisely the thing I didn’t have: traveling papers.
Just three weeks earlier I was starting what was supposed to be a month of training in the high desert of Yakima Training Center in Washington State. It was May 2005 and I was tasked to help our B Company prepare for a deployment to Iraq. I wasn’t particularly happy about the job. Since January I was anticipating a six-month assignment in Bangladesh helping various agencies of the US Government identify and track terrorists as part of the Global War on Terror. In my overactive imagination I looked forward to plenty of danger, intrigue, access to cutting edge programs and intelligence, and a chance to use some of the new skills the Army had just spent a lot of time and money giving me. More James Bond than Rambo, the mission satisfied most of the reasons I joined Special Forces but after some last minute wrangling with the Bangladeshis it seemed now to be permanently on hold.
Instead, I found myself banished to the desert to help my lucky colleagues prepare for the war I had thus far missed out on. I feigned enthusiasm when reporting to my temporary boss, Major Greg White, commander of B Company. I genuinely liked “Whitey”. He was an honest man and a good Green Beret though I would have had to fake it if I didn’t like him because his brother worked with my father; a small world. Whitey welcomed me in and within an hour I realized he would at least make it interesting. He had a violent disagreement with his company warrant officer, Hank, about who was in charge of what. They disappeared behind the control tower and reemerged a few minutes later, arm in arm and with tears in their eyes; their faces puffy with the unmistakable marks of a fistfight. I smiled and secretly hoped I wouldn’t have to fight over small matters here though it resolved the dispute as well as any other method I had seen.
The excitement of the tussle wore off quickly and we returned to the business at hand. After about an hour Whitey left me alone to run the range and I began to sink back into self-pity about my honorable exile. Any Green Beret worth his salt would much rather spend the month running around the nameless streets of Cox’s Bazaar with the Bangladeshi counterterrorism police than flip switches on Hank’s command. Maybe, I thought with a conspiratorial grin, if I piss him off they’ll send me to Bangladesh. I dismissed the juvenile thought just as my cell phone rang with a call that changed my life. It was from the unit.
“Is this Captain Miani?” The voice on the other end asked.
“Yes” I replied; a bit surprised that I didn’t recognize my interlocutor. “Who is this?”
The man identified himself as a Warrant Officer from the office in the Group Operations shop I knew little about. I knew him by reputation and was instantly intrigued. He continued in an overly formal tone. “You must return home tonight and report to Group headquarters tomorrow. You need to be in Stuttgart (Germany) in nine days to receive a mission. You’re going downrange.”
‘Downrange’ meant getting shot at. My heart leapt. “Where?” I asked.
“We can’t say. You’ll find out in Stuttgart.”
“For how long?”
“Don’t pull my leg Chief.” I used the informal slang for his rank. “You tell me I have nine days to disappear for six months and you can’t even tell me what climate to pack for? You’ve got to do better than that.” I was incredulous. This kind of conversation only happened in the movies…Didn’t it?
“Alright;” he relented. The tone of his voice indicated annoyance. “you’re either going to the Caucasus, tropical west Africa, or the Sahel. No uniforms. Pack light. See you at 0900 tomorrow.”
“Well that narrows it down.” I sneered but my voice hardly concealed my excitement. “See you at nine.”
I bounded down the tower steps and informed Whitey. Before he could even scowl I was back in my truck shouting apologies out the window and off on the dusty roads leading to the interstate. The three-hour drive passed in the blink of an eye and I immediately broke the news to my very surprised wife. A veteran of SF by that time she could see I was excited and took it in stride. Good. Over the coming days I learned very little about the mission except that five of us were selected because we were the only men available with the requisite combination of skills and security clearances for the task. Even better. Despite some reluctance, my masters in Stuttgart informed me I would be going to the Sahel with Sergeant “Mike”. I had to look up the Sahel and realized I had no idea anything was going on there. Perfect. So why send a couple of Green Berets to a place no one seemed to care about?
For a thousand years the lands that form the modern state of Chad were the domain of three sultanates that sat astride caravan routes linking Arabia and the kingdoms of west Africa. These sultanates were the domain of the three nomadic tribal groups in Chad that struggled amongst each other to secure supplies of their primary export: slaves. For centuries the slave trade serviced demand in Arabia but the age of exploration brought new customers to slave markets on Africa’s Atlantic coast. Europe arrived with a hungry eye and it wasn’t long before they realized there were far more valuable commodities in Africa than laborers. By the 19th Century, French power had expanded generally eastward across the Sahel to the shores of Lake Chad and beyond. They did so by conquering or co-opting the tribes that ruled the caravan routes and by drawing north-south boundaries where none had previously existed. In those areas that required conquest, the French found it preferable to install governors from black African, non-Muslim tribes like the Sara from south of the semi-arid regions of the Sahel. In doing so, France placed restrictions on the migration of nomadic peoples, disrupted the east-west flow of the traditional economy, and inadvertently codified the religious and racial differences of two largely separate societies into a political order where a black African pagan minority ruled an Arab Muslim majority.
The French repeated this pattern across the Sahel from Mauritania to Sudan but in the eastern frontiers of Chad, competition between the French and English exacerbated the tension as European rivals encouraged tribal warfare in accordance with their interests. For a century, the Chad-Sudan border region between El Fasher and Abeche (Darfur and the defunct Ouaddai Sultanate) served as a sanctuary for rebel groups threatening Chad’s government. Broader conflicts involving Gaddafi’s Libya, Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia drew political and material support to the former Chadian Prime Minister, Hissène Habré. Marching from his Khartoum-sponsored exile in Darfur in 1982, Habré overthrew the popular Goukoune Ouaddai with the help of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and French Intelligence. Though Habré was a proven counter to Gaddafi, his brutality was too much even for the French. Eight years later, Idriss Deby repeated the pattern, bringing his aggrieved Zaghawa tribe some relief from persecution by Habré’s Toubou.
In 2005, fears of a rebel invasion from Darfur began to occupy the mind of Idriss Deby who relied increasingly on repression to maintain a tribal order. He knew a decision made in Paris allowed him to come to power in 1990 so he carefully cultivated French favor. Twice, in 2005 and 2006, the French Air Force had bombed rebel columns enroute from Darfur to N’Djamena. Though French planes kept Deby strong in the Sahel, the tribal order ensured his weakness in the Saharan northern reaches of Chad. Fortunately for Deby, Washington and Paris deterred Colonel Gaddafi from attempting another invasion of areas he had occupied in the 1980s. What was left was a sort of no man’s land riddled with landmines and accessible only to the most careless adventurers, missionaries, and desperate rebels from other parts of the Sahara. Among these was a man named Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
Mokhtar Belmokhtar was the leader of a particularly violent Algerian group called the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). The GSPC had been a fixture of French attention for years as Belmokhtar (occasionally encouraged by Gaddafi) nurtured relationships with groups and causes hostile to French interests in the Sahel. From 1998 onward, Belmokhtar supported rebellions in Niger and Mali, assasinations in Mauritania, and Toubou lawlessness in the northern reaches of Chad, but it wasn’t until 2003 that Washington began to take notice. Recognizing an opportunity after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, Belmokhtar made GSPC one of the first independent jihadist groups to pledge allegiance to Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. Increasingly referred to as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), GSPC became the keystone linking the Sahel to the Global War on Terrorism and to me.
Three weeks later, my brief interlude with Whitey in Yakima seemed an innocent memory. My eyes were on 10-Tooth and his very excitable colleague standing a few feet behind him but my mind was fixated on the 9mm pistol resting upside down in the map pocket of the door. I tried to cover it with my thigh as I verbally wrestled through “we’re members of the US diplomatic mission” in broken French. 10-Tooth’s gaze wandered alarmingly around the cab of our vehicle. I held up my visa attestation from the Chadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a useless document that had nothing to offer in this situation but I desperately hoped 10-Tooth couldn’t read and would back down at the sight of the official looking governmental stamp. Sadly he wasn’t impressed and grew increasingly agitated, encouraged by his now angry friend and seemingly unperturbed by the things that had previously protected us from such encounters: our tough looks, diplomatic plates, and most importantly, our white skin.
The situation was reaching a decision point. For the first time I began to feel fear and my mind raced. Mike and I were alone. We were severely outgunned and a day’s drive from the nearest paved road. We were traveling without authorization (an emergency requirement enacted by a nervous President Idriss Deby after a rebel attack that winter) and worse, we were in possession of unregistered firearms, satellite phones, and large amounts of cash. We really could not afford to let anyone search our vehicle. I considered options. If I killed 10-Tooth or even presented my weapon, we would face terrible odds. Though I doubted his angry friend had usable ammunition, a serviceable weapon, or anything resembling skilled marksmanship, I did not want to discover otherwise and we had to consider the detachment of vehicle-mounted soldiers we observed at the checkpoint. I thought if I could pull 10-Tooth into the vehicle it may buy us some time to get out of range before his friends began firing. But in the heat of the moment I couldn’t confer with Mike and wasn’t certain I could hold an uncooperative African under those circumstances. Even if we managed to escape the immediate circumstances, there were 400 km of unfamiliar and treeless plateau between us and our obvious destination in the capital city N’Djamena and there wasn’t a Landcruiser on Earth that could outrun a radio call for reinforcements.
Ultimately I decided to not to use my weapon. Killing a Chadian soldier would have ended my mission whether we made it back to the Embassy alive or not. Worse, it would have ended the mission for the foreseeable future and perhaps in every country in the Sahel. Some US Ambassadors and a specific intelligence agency distrusted our activities and were watching for any mistakes that would allow them to shut us down without provoking a battle in Washington with Donald Rumsfeld. The stakes were high indeed. All these thoughts passed through my mind in the blink of an eye and it was now action time. 10-Tooth glared at me over his aviator sunglasses, his eyes yellowed with malaria. I said Mike’s name with a tone of warning and lowered the window the rest of the way…
Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC