As the U.S. government plans a possible expansion of its anti-terrorism training program in Africa, an international research group is raising concerns about how money should be spent on these programs. The Brussels-based International Crisis Group says unless military aid is balanced with development money, America risks making matters worse.
About a dozen Nigerian soldiers fire off practice rounds at cardboard cutouts in the desert as a group of U.S. Marine trainers look on. The exercise, carried out under a recently completed U.S. anti-terrorism training program, is aimed at boosting Niger's ability to patrol its portion of West Africa's sparsely populated Sahel region.
Before the Americans came, most of these soldiers had only fired a handful of rounds in training. Niger's government could not afford to give them more.
A spokesman for the U.S. military's European Command, which oversees North and West Africa, Lieutenant Colonel Pat Mackin, says the region's enormous size and poor infrastructure make it potentially fertile ground for Islamic extremist groups.
"You can fit the United States within the Pan-Sahara region," said Colonel Mackin. "What we think of it as is ungoverned space that people can operate there without any interference, because it is so difficult to police. So that is our idea is that as you work terrorism problems in the Middle East, where do these operations go? They go places that they can operate and plan and train without any interference."
But in a report published last week, the International Crisis Group warned that current and newly proposed aid to countries in the region risks fueling the very extremism it is trying to fight.
The regional counter-terrorism initiative, if fully implemented, would significantly boost the budget for regional military aid over the next five years.
International Crisis Group West Africa program director Mike McGovern says military aid must be balanced with development money. Although the proposed assistance package includes more spending on development, he says, the current situation in countries like Niger, Mali, Chad, and Mauritania is not encouraging.
"Given the level of need in these four countries, the amount of aid is quite limited. In the four countries, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Chad, there is only one USAID office, and that is in Bamako. The other three countries do not have one," said Mr. McGovern.
Mali's USAID office targets drought affected agriculture and resulting food shortages.
A political activist with Niger's main opposition party, Mahamadou Karidgo, says he is in favor of military aid to his country, but he says he is afraid if development is ignored unemployed Nigeriens could be ripe for recruitment by extremist groups.
"Even the social programs or development cannot be well conducted if there is no security," explained Mr. Karidgo. "First of all, they can make this struggle against terrorism. But second, they have to think of our poverty and try to see exactly what they can do for the poor people in Niger."
Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Chad all rank near the bottom of the U.N. poverty index, and terrorist groups have been known to recruit members from all four countries.