Amid unresolved questions about the role of its military in Africa, the U.S. has kicked off a two-week exercise in Agadez, Niger, designed to strengthen security partnerships and train elite counterterrorism units in the volatile Sahel region.
Flintlock, an annual military exercise directed by the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, involves participants from eight African countries and 12 Western countries. The event helps regional partners learn to work together to patrol vast, ungoverned spaces where terrorist groups such as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar Dine and Boko Haram operate.
Major General J. Mark Hicks, the commander for Special Operations Command Africa, said the investment in training in the region is crucial because the terror groups control only patches of territory and can still be destroyed.
"Africa matters to us because it is a 'preventive-medicine theater' versus an 'emergency-medicine theater,' " Hicks told reporters in a conference call on April 5.
"These threats, as they exist in Africa, are at a level where they can be dealt with … by, with and through our African and European partners, at a very low cost," he said. That cost efficiency, he said, makes them comparable to preventive health care, "versus something like Iraq and Syria, where you have to go into emergency medicine and large military activities."
Enabling regional partners
One regional effort taking shape that Flintlock organizers hope to support is the G5 Sahel, a 5,000-person joint military force created by Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. The U.S. is contributing $60 million toward the G5 Sahel project, but believes the training offered at Flintlock offers unique value.
"We are enabling the G5 Sahel partners both to command and control tactical formations, to cooperate across national boundaries and deal transnationally with transregional threats," Hicks said. "We're also providing tactical training to tactical units, which will be fielded in the context of the G5 Sahel immediately after the exercise."
This year's Flintlock exercise is the first since an ambush last October in which four U.S. soldiers and four Nigerian troops and an interpreter were killed while on patrol near the border with Mali. The exercise location rotates annually and was already planned to be held in Niger.
"The focus this year on Niger is really centered on the increasing threats that we see, both from al-Qaida-aligned JNIM (Group for Support of Islam and Muslims) and ISIS-aligned ISIS Greater Sahara. They are descending through central Mali, threatening not only Mali but Burkina Faso and Niger," Hicks said. "So we are mindful of the changing facts on the ground, and this exercise is focused to enable our partners that are part of the G5 to deal more directly and more effectively with those threats."
Since the October attack on U.S. forces, many have questioned the U.S. military presence on the continent. The Pentagon has yet to release its report investigating the incident, but reporting by The New York Times concludes that "a series of intelligence failures and strategic miscalculations" led to the attack in October, and leaked drafts suggest the Pentagon will pull back on its presence on the ground in West Africa.
Five U.S. senators recently returned from a one-week, bipartisan congressional trip to Africa, including a stop in Niger. The senators met with U.S. Africa Command and U.S. Special Operations Command officials and were briefed on the October ambush.
"The United States has some of our best military personnel, diplomats and aid workers serving on the front lines in Africa," Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, said in a statement. "My past week in Niger, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Burkina Faso has been an eye-opening testament to the vital economic, political and security assistance partnership between the U.S. and African countries.
"In each of our meetings this week, we reaffirmed the value we place on U.S.-African relations and the dire need for a fully staffed, empowered U.S. diplomatic corps committed to working to advance fundamental freedoms, the rule of law, and democratic transparency and accountability," he added.
According to U.S. Ambassador to Niger Eric Whitaker, who also participated in the conference call, Americans cannot wall themselves off from the issues affecting the region and must play a role in helping local partners find solutions.
"We have a vested interest in Africa developing its own security because we wouldn't want to see issues there, such as pandemics, terrorist organizations or other issues — piracy, for example — that might spread on to the United States," he said. "So we've chosen to invest in the African partner nations in helping them to address security challenges first and foremost."