An Army brigade from Fort Riley, Kan., some 4,000, soldiers, will begin helping to train African militaries. The idea is to help African troops beat back a growing terrorist threat posed by al-Qaida.
The American troops will head over in small teams over the course of the next year. The Dagger Brigade returned to Kansas last year from a deployment to Iraq, where it trained and advised that country’s security forces.
Now unit commander Col. Jeff Broadwater is preparing to do the same kind of mission but in a different place. So Broadwater is scouring his brigade for unique skills.
“We’re fortunate enough to have some African speakers, Swahili,” he says.
Swahili is spoken in much of East Africa. And the colonel says he’s also happy to have a handful of soldiers with first-hand experience on the continent.
“We do have some soldiers who either came over from Africa and went to school here and then joined the military or came over with their families,” Broadwater says.
The brigade is expected to deploy in small teams beginning next spring throughout Africa. The soldiers will take part in military exercises and train African troops on everything from logistics and marksmanship to medical care.
Meanwhile, the Defense Intelligence Agency is already placing more of its military spies in Africa.
The top American commander for Africa, Gen. Carter Ham, says this is all new. He spoke recently at an appearance in Washington: “Africa has not been a part of the world in which we have focused a lot of attention, certainly not during the majority of my career.”
American Green Berets have trained African troops in the past. But General Ham says this new effort is more comprehensive, and necessary given emerging security threats on the continent.
“There are a lot of issues in Africa that are causing concern for the United States,” says Richard Downie, an Africa expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
He points in particular to West African nation of Mali.
“Particularly the spread of terrorism you have al-Qaida’s local franchise in Africa controlling two thirds of that country right now,” he says.
Al-Qaida and its affiliates are operating in a wide arc from Nigeria through Mali, Libya and into Somalia. General Ham says there are indications the groups are starting to work together.
“What I worry about more than anything is a growing linkage which I think poses the greatest threat to regional stability across Africa, certainly into Europe and to the United States as well,” Ham says.
And to counter that terrorist threat, the Obama administration wants to rely on African forces. That means giving them proper equipment and training, and that’s where the troops from Fort Riley come in.
“We’ve been really just basically trying to understand you know, a little bit more about Africa,” Broadwater says. “The history of those areas, the culture so when we do employ to those countries we have a little bit better idea of what’s going on.”
But what’s going on in the continent, says Africa expert Richard Downie, cannot be addressed by just providing military training and equipment. There are underlying causes of unrest and extremism: poverty, lack of health care and education, and predatory governments. Downie says those are the challenges the U.S. and other countries must tackle.
“Terrorism is really a symptom of a lot of other problems that really the military is not the best organization to solve,” he says.
Better organizations, says Downie, would be the State Department and the Agency for International Development.
But the military is the organization with the biggest budget. That is why the Dagger Brigade will be able to take part in nearly 100 separate training and military exercises next year, in nearly three dozen African countries. Some of those efforts by the Army teams will last a few days, others a month or more.
These soldiers will not be allowed to take part in combat missions with African forces. That would require high-level Pentagon approval.
But after ten years of war, the American military is not eager for any new combat operations.