The Bush administration is pressing ahead with ambitious plans for training African troops in peacekeeping and other soldier skills. Consideration is even being given to an acceleration of the current training schedule, despite a shortfall in available American military experts.
U.S. defense officials say they are pleased with the first training session undertaken earlier this year in Ghana under the Pentagon's new ACOTA program. They say a similar training program for potential African peacekeepers will begin in Ethiopia shortly, with forces in Senegal targeted for training early next year. Plans are afoot for scheduling Kenyan troops after that.
ACOTA is the acronym for Africa Contingency Operations Training Assistance. It is the successor program to ACRI, or African Crisis Response Initiative. Over a five-year period, that program saw several thousand African soldiers trained in peacekeeping and crisis assistance tactics.
A key difference between the two programs is that the emphasis under ACOTA is on training trainers, not just troops. U.S. officials say that should make training in individual African countries sustainable over time, avoiding the need for U.S. trainers to go in repeatedly.
In the case of Ghana, said a senior Pentagon official, the Ghanaian trainers who underwent American instruction this year are now training a battalion of troops with more Ghanaian battalions lined up to cycle through the program.
The senior official told VOA that it appears the concept of training trainers is proving itself.
This official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the administration is now looking into ways of accelerating the effort in West Africa in order to meet a projected long-term need for regional peacekeepers for duty in Liberia.
But the official conceded getting skilled U.S. personnel for the African training programs has become a challenge. The Pentagon's preference is to use U.S. active-duty military members, especially for field training exercises, but most of the troops who would normally carry out such missions are involved in U.S. military operations elsewhere - for example, in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Instead, the senior Pentagon official said civilian contractors will be used, often former members of the armed forces who now work for private defense firms. The official noted such contractors were used exclusively in Ghana earlier this year, because soldiers were not available.