27. Telegram From the Embassy in Mali to the Department of State1

3057. For AF/W. Subj: Soviet Activity in Mali. Ref: State 170070.2

1. Not having received the relevant background papers mentioned in reftel, I feel somewhat hampered in responding. In any event, before answering the Department’s three questions, I shall briefly recapitulate some general comments on the Soviet-Malian relationship as reported from this Embassy. The Department may wish also to look at such messages as 76 Bamako 3030,3 Bamako 0154,4 the Mali PARM (Bamako 1568),5 and Bamako 2930.6

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2. Mali perceives itself as independent and non-aligned, acting in its own interests and no one else’s. It seeks economic development aid from the West and military assistance from the Soviets. The military government considers an effective armed force essential to its image and to Mali’s security, and the USSR is the only source willing to provide the required equipment. Mali believes itself free of outside influence and is confident of its ability to handle any unwanted pressures.

3. With respect to airfields, the Soviets have been undertaking significant improvements of the runways at Sikasso, San, Mopti, and Gao, ostensibly for Mali’s MIG–21’s but actually also for Soviet aircraft, just in case. Mali is strategically important to the Soviets because in the vast belt above the 11th parallel, only Mali would offer landing facilities to them on their way south. Gao is much closer to Algiers than is Guinea, and so for certain aircraft it could be a better staging area. These airfields are probably not intended as anything more than back-up or emergency landing places.

4. Whereas the Soviet intent in improving Mali’s runways would seem clearly to be to prepare for contingencies in connection with any designs in Southern Africa, Mali’s purposes are different. For Mali such Soviet activity is seen as upgrading its basic infrastructure in a way no other power is willing to do. Equally important, if an airlift were needed to bring majority rule to Southern Africa, Mali could offer its airfields as refueling or staging areas as its contribution to the common effort.

5. Mali does not want a violent solution in Southern Africa because of the attendant suffering and the diversion of energies from the goal of economic development. But it remains skeptical of negotiations, and if nothing comes of them and armed struggle were viewed as the only way to “liberate” Southern Africa, Mali would do its part through its airfields. At the time of Soviet use of Bamako-Senou for the airlift to Angola in late 1975, Director General of Foreign Affairs Halidou Toure told the French Ambassador that Mali “would ally itself with the devil” if it would help the Southern Africa cause. Actually, the Malians, who unequivocally backed the MPLA, were convinced that the Soviets and the Cubans were “pure” in their motivation and had no designs in Angola of their own. That consideration was important to the Malian perception, for Toure also said at the time (and to me later) that Mali would not want to do anything to further an outside power’s ambitions on the continent.

6. To turn to the Department’s questions, we know of no specific agreement giving the Soviets use of the airfields improved by them, and the French are quite certain there is none. There may, however, be verbal promises or even an informal letter. General arrangements [Page 73] concerning Soviet assistance concluded under the Modibo Keita regime apparently still exist but are highly secret, and it is said that virtually no one, even among Malian officials, knows what is in them. In any case, the form of any agreement or lack thereof would not be important if the situation met the Military Committee’s criteria for assistance to Southern Africa.

7. A demarche to express concern over possible future Soviet use of Mali’s airfields to support operations elsewhere in Africa would be, in a word, unacceptable to the Malians. The Department will recall the Foreign Ministry’s reaction of controlled anger when Chargé Dawkins delivered a diplomatic note expressing the USG’s concern over the Angola airlift on December 24, 1975 (75 Bamako 4730).7 It will also remember Ambassador McGuire’s message some two months later reporting that the Government of Mali came close to refusing to receive the December demarche and that our bilateral relations had suffered from it (76 Bamako 0591).8 A similar demarche now would have no chance of success.

8. The French Ambassador considers that an approach to Mali by France, still the single most influential power here, would be as badly received as one by us and would perhaps be even less acceptable.

9. The West African defense arrangement under the CEAO framework offers the possibility of important moderating influences on Mali, and we are pleased that Mali has been folded in. The Africans, however, are themselves enough concerned about Soviet activity in Africa to undertake the requisite steps with Mali without Western prodding. I would therefore recommend that we let the Africans pursue their own courses with Mali in their own effective way.

10. Fundamentally, Mali’s reaction to any future Soviet request to use its airfields and air space for operations elsewhere in Africa will depend on the circumstances prevailing at the time and on how the request is presented. If it is cleverly couched in terms of “liberating” Southern Africa, Mali would respond affirmatively. If the situation were not clear, however, and Mali perceived an element of Soviet self-serving or power politics, its reply might not be so easily predicted. The Western effort at negotiated solutions is critical, both in the hope [Page 74] of achieving those solutions and to deny the Soviets any justification for intervention on the ground that only they can help.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770266–0896. Secret.
  2. In telegram 170070 to Bamako, July 21, the Department asked Byrne for her comments on three questions: Is there an agreement between Mali and the Soviet Union on use of airfields? How would the Malians react to an expression of concern by the U.S. Government regarding Soviet use of airfields? Would France or another African country be a better vehicle for conveying such concern? (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770259–0666)
  3. In telegram 3030 from Bamako, August 27, 1976, the Embassy reported on conversations with diplomats from the French and West German Embassies on Soviet intentions in Mali and their general conclusion that while the Soviets would like to improve their tactical capability in the region, Mali would maintain its independence. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D760328–0629)
  4. In telegram 154 from Bamako, January 11, the Embassy proposed using other African countries to pressure Mali to reduce its Soviet ties. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770011–0740)
  5. In telegram 1568 from Bamako, April 19, in the Embassy’s annual Policy Analysis and Resource Management report, Byrne assessed U.S. interests in Mali as encouraging Mali to remain non-aligned and assisting in development. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770135–0900)
  6. In telegram 2930 from Bamako, July 18, the Embassy noted Malian self-interest behind Mali’s acceptance of Soviet military assistance. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770256–0295)
  7. In telegram 4730 from Bamako, December 24, 1975, the Embassy reported the Government of Mali’s angry reaction when the Ambassador delivered a diplomatic note protesting Malian support for the MPLA in Angola. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P850081–1639)
  8. In telegram 591 from Bamako, February 17, 1976, the Embassy reported that the U.S. démarche to Mali on the use of Bamako airport by Soviet aircraft returning from Angola was badly received. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P850107–1962)