Africa Deployments a Test for Post-War Army
Small teams of U.S. Army soldiers can be found across Africa on any given day teaching local militaries how to become professional fighting forces.
American special operations forces for decades have trained African militaries but only recently has the conventional “Big Army” made it part of its regular duties. Army leaders are championing these efforts as an important piece of the U.S. strategy to fight the “long war” against Islamic extremists. For the Army, it also is an opportunity to carve out a niche at a time when the United States has little appetite for “boots on the ground” and Pentagon budget cuts are prompting a debate about the size and shape of the armed services.
The Army over the past two years has rotated teams in and out of Africa from three different brigades for the mission known as “building partner capacity.” It is part of a broader initiative the Army started in 2013 to “align” combat brigades with major regional commands. The intent is to sharpen the skills of Army combat units to make them more responsive to unpredictable crises and more culturally attuned to areas of the world where security is fragile.
U.S. soldiers in Africa who train local militaries “have done a great job preparing themselves and understanding the environment before they head over there,” said Army Gen. David M. Rodriguez, commander of U.S. Africa Command, based in Stuttgart, Germany. The program so far is “working very well,” he told reporters last week at a breakfast meeting in Washington, D.C.
The task is daunting on many levels. The continent is huge, with 54 countries and territory nearly three times the size of the United States. The security threats are growing and becoming increasingly treacherous, as Islamic extremist groups have sprouted in different regions. A deadly attack in Mali last week was attributed to a terrorist group linked to al-Qaida. Another al-Qaida affiliate based in Somalia, Al Shabaab, has wreaked havoc in eastern Africa. Nigeria’s homegrown Islamic State offshoot Boko Haram terrorizes the west. The group was named the world's most deadly extremist organization by the Global Terrorism Index. “They run neck and neck with ISIS with the horrific attacks and kidnappings,” Rodriguez said. Worsening the situation is the collapse of Libya which has turned the country into an ISIS hotbed and staging base to get into Europe, and militants continue to pour in from the Middle East.
The challenge for the United States in Africa is not only to build resilient national forces that can combat these groups but also to collaborate with civilian law enforcement, Rodriguez said. “These networks are criminal networks. They can move anything, drugs, fuel, technology, equipment, skills. We are concerned about that throughout the region.”
Big Army is taking on a role that historically has been owned by Green Berets. Rodriguez cautioned that the depth and breadth of skills differ between conventional and special operations forces, but they all contribute to “grow capacity.” Army Special Forces, for instance, specialize in training battalion-level organizations whereas the conventional Army has focused on small units.
Army effort to train forces in Africa is a “good microcosm of the U.S. strategy writ large of working through partners,” said Joshua Meservey, Africa and Middle East policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.
It is still too early to predict whether this program will succeed, Meservey said. The effort is worthwhile, though, he added. “To really build a competent force is a long-term project."
For American soldiers, the mission in Africa is a refreshing and welcome change from Middle East and Afghanistan deployments, said Army Col. Barry “Chip” Daniels, commander of the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division. The brigade was assigned to support Africa Command from January through September. Of the brigade’s 4,500 troops based in Fort Bliss, Texas, as many as 1,100 were deployed in Africa at one time, Daniels said during a meeting with reporters last week at the Pentagon.
“We did theater security cooperation across the continent. About 100 missions in 26 countries,” he said.
These engagements are nothing like the standard Army brigade deployment, Daniels said. For one, the teams bring a much lighter footprint than what the Army is accustomed to. Only one battalion of about 800 soldiers was in Djibouti for the entire nine-month tour. The rest of the brigade stayed back at Fort Bliss. “We would rotate small teams of three to 130 people to conduct theater security cooperation and exercises,” he explained. “They may go for a week to four months.”
With so many teams moving back and forth, “We developed expertise as travel agents,” Daniels said, making a point that the logistical hurdles of traveling in Africa are tougher than most Americans could imagine.
The brigade participated in four major military exercises with African and European nations that have far more experience and knowledge of the continent than their U.S. counterparts.
“Soldiers enjoyed this mission for the most part because it was very different than what the Army has been doing,” said Daniels. American troops there are not providing security but training others to “export” security. Countries want trained troops to participate in UN peacekeeping operations or to join the African Union's new 25,000-strong multinational force that is gearing up to combat terrorist groups.
“We were helping the Africans build the capacity they need,” Daniels said. Compared to forces in the Middle East that “consume” security, he noted, militaries in Africa are motivated to do the work.
“These are countries that are exporting security, genuinely interested in stabilizing their own back yard. Seeing that level of motivation was inspiring. Even our junior soldiers picked up on it.”
Some nations’ forces obviously are better than others, Daniels said. “We were particularly impressed with the Ugandans. They are serious about securing East Africa through a regional approach.” The armies of Cameroon, Ethiopia and Rwanda also were impressive, he said. “They have a genuine desire to become more professionalized and serve as stabilizing forces.”
U.S. officials wanted to avoid the pitfalls of past attempts to train foreign troops. Many efforts failed because local forces could not sustain the program after the American trainers left. The Army wants to make sure that trainees can replicate what they learned on their own and within their financial means.
Mentoring Africans has been a learning experience for U.S. soldiers, Daniels said. “Zambians were teaching us how to build huts with grass and sticks,” he said. “We were pretty rudimentary and expeditionary which is probably the right way to go. We want to leave them with a capability that they can continue to do on their own. We didn’t want to take in a lot of our high-tech large footprint type equipment and then take it all back when we leave.”
One of the most demanding tasks is to set up communications systems that everyone can share, Daniels said. The Army decided to not bring its expensive communications systems and instead use what the Africans use, mostly high-frequency radios.
American commanders have been surprised that the top request from African countries is for training in logistics and medical services, more so than for “trigger pulling” skills. Daniels said. “They were focused on sustainment.”
One lesson from these deployments is that U.S. soldiers do not necessarily require language training to work with African forces. “There is a lot of emphasis in the Army on language training,” Daniels said. “In hindsight I wouldn’t do that, and instead put more emphasis on cross cultural training. Enough of them are English speaking that it wasn’t a problem.”
On whether the program is accomplishing the intended results, it is too soon to tell, Daniels said. Some of his initial observations are positive. “Things are beginning to stabilize in east Africa,” he said.
“Al Shabaab is losing territory, even though it still has the capability to launch attacks.” In western Africa, it is “encouraging to see countries come together to deal with Boko Haram which originally was seen as a Nigerian problem.” Cameroon, Benin and Chad are “coming together in a regional approach. Boko Haram is losing access to safe havens. They can still attack, but in the long term they may begin to lose credibility in their narrative.”
The United States has to take the long view, said Daniels. “We tend to want results right away. It’ll take a long time to assess how effective this model can be. But I just think it’s got to be cheaper and more efficient than some of the things we’ve found ourselves doing in the last several years.”
The 3rd Brigade in October was replaced by the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division. The Army is setting up a “lessons learned” process so units can pick up where the other left off. “We need to assess if this is working,” he said. “Is this preventing the outbreak of conflict? Containing extremist threats? We need to assess this over three to five years.”
The cost of this mission, Daniels said, will be a “better investment than putting a large force on the ground once hostilities spill over. You end up with a western force in a part of the world that is not western, trying to convince people of a narrative.” A better way is to “enable Africans to secure their own part of the world using their own narrative. Time will tell.”
Meservey, of the Heritage Foundation, noted that the U.S. military has a mixed track record building African forces. A military officer trained by the United States led a coup d’etat in Mali in 2012 that overthrew a democratically elected government. “Clearly he hadn’t internalized the lessons the U.S. Army tries to teach their counterparts about respect for civilian rule. That makes people wonder about U.S. training programs.” Conversely, in Burundi, on the heels of a turbulent political crisis, the country’s U.S. trained army has been even handed and has remained largely impartial, said Meservey. “They have behaved with professionalism so far.” These successes, however, “have received less attention.”
The U.S. Army appears to be trying to cement its role in Africa, he said. “No doubt, the Army is ramping up their engagement on the continent. There are about 2,000 soldiers in Africa at any given time,” Meservey added. “But I don’t think they’ll ever replace Special Forces” who have more experience working in the region and excel at low-footprint counterterrorism training.
The Army has to be patient, he cautioned. “It’s a long, difficult process to build a national army.” It is somewhat encouraging that African armies are focused on logistics training, Meservey said. “To field a professional military, you have to have a very professional logistics operation, especially if you want a sustained presence in an area. It’ is a critical part of building a professional military, and it’s very difficult.”
Playing in favor of the U.S. mission in Africa is that host countries have welcomed the United States, AFRICOM chief Rodriguez said. When the Bush administration created U.S. Africa Command in 2007, the reaction was mostly unfavorable. Rodriguez said there is no desire to establish a permanent command headquarters on the continent, and countries prefer a rotational approach with trainers coming in to work with local militaries. “I don’t detect too many places that have a negative perception of what we’re doing,” he said. “They welcome our help.”