Solo Flight

“…Chirac or no Chirac, I wasn’t going to die of stupidity in this hell hole.”

Tomas stirred and cast a one-eyed gaze on the compass. Satisfied we were still on course, he went back to sleep. I’d never flown a plane before and was afraid to nudge the controls even a tiny bit. My hands were sweating on the stick which made me all the more impressed by Tomas’s indifference. I shouldn’t have been surprised. On a previous flight I had watched him react calmly to an engine stall while he manually switched gas tanks in our single engine Piper. Things were a bit different with me at the controls. At 1500 feet over the featureless plateau and with the only qualified pilot asleep in the seat, there was little room for error. I kept the needle on 260 degrees and fumed a little bit he had felt the need to give me a class on reading a compass.

Tomas had a deep scar across his throat, a souvenir of a liaison gone bad in Beirut many years ago. The “former” French intelligence officer claimed to have been in Mogadishu in 1993 when Task Force Ranger lost two Blackhawks and 13 men. The French weren’t exactly our friends at the time so Tomas and his countrymen spectated while our boys died in the streets. Relations between France and the United States hadn’t improved since then. If anything, they’d gotten worse. In mid-2005, the Iraq war was in full swing and France was using it as leverage to make a play for influence in Europe. President Chirac believed he could marginalize Great Britain and the United States by rallying Europeans behind French opposition to the invasion. But Chirac’s vision struggled against Europe’s memory of politics under French and German leadership. As a result, French foreign policy became anchored partly in countering the United States, a political strategy that affected me very directly in the Sahel.

French and US Special Operators are photographed responding jointly to the seizure of the Splendid Hotel in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso in 2016.

Absent Without Leave

In June 2005, I was behind schedule. A dispute between Washington and N’Djamena had delayed my visa and I was eager to get started. Fortunately for me the drama occurred over Memorial Day weekend, allowing me to travel from Germany to watch my sister graduate from West Point and my father retire from 35 years in the US Air Force. My last minute orders to Chad had derailed my earlier plans to attend so my surprise appearance was a nice gift for my family. Initially, my supervisor in Stuttgart did not want me to go lest something delay my deployment to the Sahel. I didn’t argue and he looked the other way as I disappeared to the States for a few days.

This was no small matter. Not only did my supervisor lack authority to authorize my leave, but I had already been briefed on my very sensitive mission. Travel outside the watchful eyes of Special Operations Command Europe at this point was a violation of my isolation and therefore a security risk. If anything happened over the weekend that prevented my return in good order the following Tuesday, he would be held responsible. I resolved not to let him down and indeed to protect him from blame if something went wrong. As it turned out, I returned in time and with visa in hand I was off to the Sahel.

Flight Lead: Chirac

My first taste of how Chirac’s ego would impact me came from an unlikely source. The Embassy Health Nurse lectured me with an air of bored superiority. “If you’re hurt you come here.” she said without a hint of humor. I looked around the small room that passed for a clinic, an examination room, and a pharmacy. The shelves were stocked with Band-Aids, hand sanitizer, and bottles of malaria prophylaxis. There was a sink in one corner with a stethescope, thermometer, and a blood pressure cuff hanging nearby. There was little else. She continued, “If you’re sick you come here. If it’s after hours, you call my cell and meet me here. Are there any questions?”

I was underwhelmed. In this remote, malaria infested corner of the Sahel, this was the sum total of the medical support for an American Ambassador, his staff, and all their families. The Nurse seemed unaware or unconcerned about the limitations of her office. For some odd reason, I felt the need to raise my hand before asking what seemed an obvious question. Noting the scarcity of equipment and medicines in the room, I asked for her point of contact at the French military hospital in case Mike (my partner on this mission) or I were seriously injured. The small French base on the outskirts of the city featured the only hospital in Chad. Though I did not know its capabilities, military hospitals were primarily used as trauma clinics; exactly what I needed. I knew also that if I had to beg the French for help it was better to have names to drop when I showed up bleeding at their gate.

The Nurse’s humorless face took on a hint of annoyance if not anger. “You do not go to the French” she scolded. “You come here.”

I blinked. “I don’t think I was clear,” I explained. “I mean seriously injured. If I’m seriously injured…I should go to the French base right?”

“No, you come here.” she insisted.

I put my hands up in a gesture suggesting we should start the conversation over. “Ok, ok. Let me use an example. I expect to be operating in the hinterland quite a bit. It’s dangerous out there.” I tried to paint the picture for her by dramatizing. “Please imagine I’m gravely injured; my arm’s off and I’ve been shot in the face. I may die if I don’t get to a surgeon.” I paused to let my illustration sink in. “I go to the French then right?” I wore an expression of anxious curiosity. Surely she understood the gravity of what I was describing.

“No, you come here.”  She was serious. “Under no circumstances do you ever go to the French. We don’t talk to them.”

I was completely dumbfounded. That sort of political nonsense would get me killed. I decided this woman was crazy and that I would certainly go to the French. Motrin and Band-Aids just wouldn’t cut it if things went bad in my business and Chirac or no Chirac, I wasn’t going to die of stupidity in this hell hole.

Wingman: Sarkozy

The election of Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007 changed everything. Suddenly we began talking to the French again after they made a strategic decision to rejoin the military activities of NATO. The change happened just in time. As the War on Terror came and went, it left Islamic terrorism to metasticize into a vigorous cancer that spread violently into the Maghreb and the Sahel.  I was at the front end of this movement but we were hamstrung without the French. Since then they have become fantastic partners and have really exerted effective leadership in Africa; stabilizing the Central African Republic and turning French national policy around in 30 days to save Mali. More importantly, France was enabling regional responses to terrorism by facilitating diplomacy and backing it up by building military capability in Chad, Burkina Faso, and Mali.

Sarkozy would come too late to help me however. Scenes like the one of French and American SOF operating together in Ouagadougou in 2016 are very positive indeed but in 2005 they were still unheard of. Now, 1500 feet above the ground with Tomas snoring lightly in the driver’s seat and my mysterious, un-vetted interpreter Mahmoud seated quietly behind me, I had plenty of time to ponder my mortality. Like the United States, I was flying solo across the Sahel but couldn’t land safely without French help. No one said Special Forces would be boring.

Stranger Pic

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC 

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