BAMAKO, Mali — U.S. European Command is sending personnel to train forces in nine countries. Each has its own challenges and unique circumstances.
As the Pentagon contemplates what the new “AFRICOM’ will look like, the diverse nations participating in the Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Initiative (TSCTI) point to the complexity of the African political and social landscape.
Five of the nine countries, Mali, Niger, Chad, Senegal and Mauritania, rank in the United Nations’ list of the world’s 50 poorest countries.
Nearby countries not participating in the program, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Cote D’Ivoire, have been wracked by civil wars in recent years, which has created further instability in the region.
Army Col. Mark Rosengard, director of operations at Special Operations Command, Europe, said the region has some of the ingredients present in Afghanistan before the rise of the Taliban. Cutting through the heart of the desert are ancient trading routes used today to traffic weapons, drugs and illegal migrants. Extreme poverty and large Muslim populations are a potentially volatile mix. There are also large swaths of remote, ungoverned lands.
The following is a breakdown of the each of the nine countries participating :
Algeria. The Algerian government has been fighting Islamic extremists for two decades, and as a result, has one of the most advanced militaries in the regions.
It is the home base of the GSPC terrorist group, which has continued to battle against the government and the military.
TSCTI training so far has been low profile and focused on specific skills the Algerians would like to learn from the U.S. military, said Rosengard.
“The Algerians are the regional leader in respect to pure [military] capacity,” he added. As far as readiness for their troops, they don’t require much training, he said.
Algeria would like to obtain advanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance technology from the United States, but a host of U.S. laws prevents it, and other countries participating in the program, from receiving advanced weapons systems. “They’re not on the Christmas list,” Rosengard said. “Tactically that is unfortunate, but I understand on a political level why that must be true.”
EUCOM is encouraging Algeria to use its military capacity to assist its neighbors in fighting terrorism. One of its most valuable assets is its fleet of C-130 transport planes that can reach into the middle of the Sahara desert.
“What we’re trying to develop is the mechanism by which they would interface with less developed militaries to the south,” he added.
Chad. The landlocked nation of Chad is perhaps symbolic of why some Defense Department officials proposed a unified African command. Chad is under EUCOM’s area of operations. But the ongoing conflict in Sudan — which is under U.S. Central Command’s purview — spills over the border.
Chad was the scene of the first engagement with EUCOM-trained troops when Chadian and Niger forces battled with a band of GSPC fighters, who reportedly lost 43 men, according to an International Crisis Group Report, “Islamist Terrorism in the Sahel: Fact or Fiction.”
The nation, which has a large Christian minority, has a long history of instability. The government barely survived an uprising last summer. Support from the French military stopped rebels from entering the capital, said an ICG report on the conflict.
Adding to the complicated mix, Chad recently became an oil exporter. The nation also borders Nigeria’s restive north — a current hotspot for Islamic extremists — and may serve as a conduit for radicals who want to reach this volatile area, Rosengard said.
Mali. While one of the world’s poorest nations, Mali has demonstrated that democracy can thrive in West Africa. It made the transition from military to civilian rule in the early 1990s and has held two elections since, including one that transferred power to a new government with little fuss.
“It’s a work in progress clearly, but I would say this is a very healthy democratic state,” said U.S. Ambassador Terence McCulley.
The Tuareg, a tribe of once nomadic herders, have staged several uprisings since the 1960s. They once played host to the GSPC, but later became bitter enemies. Skirmishes between the two groups were reported last fall.
Wide expanses of Saharan desert up north, and long borders, make control of these lands nearly impossible.
Mauritania. A military coup deposed longtime dictator President Maaoya Sid’Ahmed Ould Taya last year. One of the first four nations to host EUCOM training, Mauritania cannot receive direct military support until elections are held. Elections are currently slated for March 11.
It is a so-called “transitional” nation, with an Arabic north, and minority populations of blacks in the south. The minorities have long complained of oppression, although they have never been able to mount a significant armed uprising.
Herding disputes with blacks residing in Senegal in the late 1980s led to bloodshed. While the population is almost entirely Muslim, there has been debate as to whether the country has the potential to embrace radicalism. Some analysts have claimed the ousted government used the fear of radical Islam as a pretext to crack down on opponents.
Like Mali, ancient smuggling routes pass through its desolate north. It also serves a transit point for illegal migrants seeking to make their way to Europe through the Canary Islands.
Morocco. Along with regional rival Algeria, Morocco has a significant air force. EUCOM would like to use its transport planes to help its neighbors to the south. “They have indicated they want to help,” Rosengard said.
Because of sensitivities working with the U.S. military, training there has been low profile, he added.
“We are engaged, cooperating with them and developing relationships,” he said.
Olivier Guitta, a Washington-based expert on terrorism in North Africa, said upcoming elections may spell trouble ahead. Groups with Islamic fundamentalist leanings have widespread support. The electorate is fed up with corruption and a lack of economic progress, he said.
While the royal family may intervene if the elections swing the government in a radical direction, a worst-case scenario would mean the United States losing one of its best allies in the region overnight, he warned.
Niger. Perhaps best known as the source of fictional reports claiming the late Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was seeking to buy yellow cake uranium, Niger does indeed have strategic mines of the material.
Rosengard said EUCOM is not concerned about these mines as a security threat, but acknowledged the French and Chinese have interests there.
The ICG report notes that Abdul Qadeer Khan, father of the Pakistani nuclear bomb, made several trips to the region and bought a hotel in Timbuktu, Mali, prior to revelations that he had been assisting rogue nations in acquiring nuclear technology. Analysts have suggested that his interest in the region stems from Niger’s uranium mines, the report said.
Nigeria. Nigeria is the fifth largest supplier of crude oil to the United States. Rebels in the southern delta region are doing their best to disrupt this supply. Their complaint is that too little of the oil profits are making it to the people. Islamists have also made inroads in the country’s north.
“There is indeed an issue of regional security rooted in Nigeria,” Rosengard said. “They are two distinct problems in the big picture,” he added. The goals of the TSCTI are more in line with stemming radical Islam. However, the Nigerian military wants help with both issues.
“In order to be a good and honest friend to the Nigerians, we can’t insist only on operating in the north,” Rosengard said.
A Defense Department military analyst, who declined to be named, said little of the nation’s oil riches is making it to the military. Nigerian forces are ill equipped to take on problems in the north or south.
“They have an army that doesn’t have bullets to train with,” the analyst said. “What I see is a military that has capacity it doesn’t use. Money is going into the government, but not making it out.”
Senegal. Though small in size, Senegal has historically been a regional leader. A frequent participant in African and world peacekeeping missions, it has an advanced military and lacks open spaces for terrorists to set up camp or the smuggling routes that concern EUCOM.
“We are engaging Senegal at the leader level and encouraging the nation to take on what it wants to take on, which is the role of a regional leader,” Rosengard said.
Senegal serves as a hub for regional military exercises and as a logistics base for TSCTI training.
Tunisia. The North African nation of Tunisia has served as a transit area for Islamists who want to travel to Iraq to fight, Rosengard said. EUCOM has provided short-duration, specific skills helping the military stem this problem.
Training has centered around urban operations and maritime interdiction.
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