There are a few things that disturb me about reports that the Pentagon has tapped a brigade for aid and training missions in 35 African nations.
A U.S. Army brigade will begin sending small teams into as many as 35 African nations early next year, part of an intensifying Pentagon effort to train countries to battle extremists and give the United States a ready and trained force to dispatch to Africa if crises requiring the U.S. military emerge.
…This first-of-its-kind brigade assignment, involving teams from the 2nd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, will target countries such as Libya, Sudan, Algeria and Niger, where Al Qaeda-linked groups have been active. It also will assist nations such as Kenya and Uganda that have been battling al-Shabab militants on the front lines in Somalia.
Gen. Carter Ham, the top U.S. commander in Africa, noted that the brigade has a small drone capability that could be useful in Africa. But he also acknowledged that he would need special permission to tap it for that kind of mission.
“If they want them for [military] operations, the brigade is our first sourcing solution because they’re prepared,” said Gen. David Rodriguez, the head of U.S. Army Forces Command. “But that has to go back to the secretary of defense to get an execute order.”
Already the U.S. military has plans for nearly 100 different exercises, training programs and other activities across the widely diverse continent.
Dagger Brigade commander Col. Jeff Broadwater said the language and culture training will be different than what most soldiers have had in recent years, since they have focused on Pashtun and Farsi, languages used mostly in Afghanistan and Iran. He said he expects the soldiers to learn French, Swahili, Arabic or other languages, as well as the local cultures.
“What’s really exciting is we get to focus on a different part of the world and maintain our core combat skills,” Broadwater said, adding that the soldiers know what to expect. “You see those threats [in Africa] in the news all the time.”
The brigade will be carved up into different teams designed to meet the specific needs of each African nation. As the year goes on, the teams will travel from Fort Riley to those nations, all while trying to avoid any appearance of a large U.S. military footprint.
“The challenge we have is to always understand the system in their country,” said Rodriguez, who has been nominated to be the next head of Africa Command. “We’re not there to show them our system, we’re there to make their system work. Here is what their army looks like, and here is what we need to prepare them to do.”
Rodriguez said the nearly 100 assignments so far requested by Ham will be carried out with “a very small footprint to get the high payoff.”
I understand the concept and the fear behind it. Africa has lots of room and several nearly-failed states, so it makes a great place for groups like Al Qaeda to regenerate their percieved presence worldwide by working to recruit radical moslems in the region. The fear is that eventually these groups will either do something locally that impinges on U.S. interests or generate a capability for non-local operations in Europe or the U.S. The percieved answer is to train local militaries in U.S. methods of counter-insurgency so that the U.S. has good military contacts in at-risk African nations and so that these militaries can better partner with the U.S. should it have to forcefully intervene at some stage. Also, it is hoped, some American officers and soldiers will have experience in those nations and be able to pass their insights on to others at need, perhaps side-stepping the kind of massive cultural disconnects we’ve seen undermine “hearts and minds” efforts elsewhere.
My problems, however, start with the fact that Africa is an awfully big place with a vast diversity of cultures, and there’s a danger of these soldiers treating it as one big amalgumated Dark Continent.
Thomas Dempsey, a professor with the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, said the biggest challenge will be the level of cultural, language and historical diversity across the far-flung continent.
“How do you train for that in a way that would be applicable wherever they go?” said Dempsey, a retired Army colonel. He said he’s not sure using a combat brigade is the right answer, but added, “I’m not sure what the answer is. The security challenges differ so dramatically that, to be honest, I really don’t think it’s feasible to have a continental training package.”
I’m also less than happy contemplating how some local African leaders will put their troops’ new-found COIN expertise to use. Nations like Kenya and Niger already have problems with unrest simply due to income disparity, resource shortages among the poorest and a lack of true democracy as the elite runs the nations essentially for the elite’s convenience. These are all the kinds of factors we’ve seen contribute to popular uprisings during the Arab Spring and that kind of surge of support for truly populist rule is just as likely as any kind of AQ-led islamist insurrection, if not more so. That the U.S. will be training African nations in techniques and technologies that can just as easily be used to put down their own populace as to combat AQ should not be ignored, nor should the prospect of the U.S. finding itself yet again on the wrong side of history thereby.
Nor, if history is any judge, will the U.S. be able to sidestep accusations of Imperial mission creep into Africa. This graf from the Politico story reads like a flat regurgitation of the Pentagon press release and is highly misleading:
The Pentagon’s effort in Africa, including the creation of U.S. Africa Command in 2007, has been carefully calibrated, largely due to broad misgivings across the continent that it could spawn American bases or create the perception of an undue U.S. military influence there. As a result, the command has been based in Stuttgart, Germany, rather than on the African continent.
More accurately, the Pentagon tried to get an African nation to host AfriCom but was refused by everyone they approached, so had to take Stuttgart as a default.
Lastly, yet again the U.S. is reacting to a problem by reaching for the military hammer, because that’s the only tool in the box. In many of these nations, a bit of “nation building” and “hearts and minds” would be a good thing, there’s no doubt about that. But that this should be delivered by folk holding guns is not ideal, for the reasons stated above and because the U.S. really needs to learn how not to turn to the military hammer for its own sake. A civilian corps which could do all the bits of successful COIN before there is an actual organized insurgency to be counter to would be an incredibly useful tool for American diplomacy, but alas one doesn’t exist. Hillary Clinton proposed one in her 2010 quadriennial review at State but as soon as the concept met resistance from the military, which has successfully sucked up all the nation-building dollars and all the bureaucratic clout that goes with them, she folded. I regard that deliberate failure to expend some of her political capital as the greatest failing of her time in office.
Essentially, then, the U.S. military is prepping for 35 or more examples of weilding an ever-bigger hammer by mission-creep increments, of cultural disconnect, of being seen as aiding an elite minority against its populace. It’s prepping for 35 Afghanistans, at the very best 35 Libyas. There’s got to be a better way.