In what is being billed as one of the largest deployments of U.S. forces in northern Africa since World War II, more than 1,000 U.S. troops are in West Africa for counter-terrorism training. The exercises, which will include military forces from nine countries in the region, are part of a broader U.S. effort to increase anti-terrorism cooperation with West African nations.
U.S. and African forces hold exercises every two years, but this time it is larger, and in a new area. In a VOA interview, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs Theresa Whelan explained why.
"Our concern, obviously, is that in these regions, where the borders are open and movement is very free, and with little, in fact sometimes no, control, that these are often areas where terrorist organizations might find refuge and the ability to train or conduct logistic support operations, because they could do so without much interference from the government,” she said. “And our desire is help those governments to create a capacity to deter the use of their territory for that purpose."
Ms. Whelan said she has no information to substantiate a recent report that the al-Qaida terrorist network is trying to move some of its training operations to Nigeria, although she said some militant groups in Nigeria and Niger may have some connections to al-Qaida.
The U.S. troops in this series of exercises, most of them Special Forces, will hold bi-lateral, live-fire exercises in six countries: Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Chad. In addition, Morocco, Nigeria and Senegal will participate in a command exercise in Dakar. In all, about 3,000 African troops will participate, and representatives of several NATO countries will also be there.
The Defense Department says the exercises are aimed at helping the African countries build their military capabilities, and work together more effectively to fight terrorism and halt human trafficking and the flow of illegal drugs and weapons across their borders.
"We believe that building this military capacity -- professional, disciplined militaries that are, right-sized, appropriately equipped for their missions and the threats that they face -- that that hopefully will contribute to a base level of stability that our counterparts at the State Department and [US]AID, and certainly the World Bank and other institutions, agree is necessary for development," she added.
The U.S. European Command, which is responsible for U.S. military operations in most of Africa, says the exercises will include airborne and security operations, ground combat and training in tactics, land navigation and marksmanship. There will also be training in the laws of war and the protection of human rights.
Deputy Assistant Secretary Whelan says these exercises, code-named 'Flintlock,' are part of a broader U.S. effort, called the Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Initiative. That program, now in its early stages, is designed to deliver hundreds-of-millions-of-dollars worth of aid and military assistance to sub-Saharan countries during the next several years.
Ms. Whelan says the Defense Department wants to be more consistent in its exchanges with African countries. She says the U.S. military has already trained several hundred border security soldiers in Mali, and smaller numbers in Niger, Mauritania and Chad. She says the goal is to train a full battalion of up to a thousand soldiers in each country.
At the same time, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs says, the Defense Department is sensitive to concerns among some Africans about what they see as too much U.S. military involvement on the continent, particularly in predominantly Muslim regions.
"We want to make sure that their Muslim populations understand why we're there and what we're doing, and that we are not at war with Muslims,” she noted. “We are at war with radicals, who use terrorism as a tool, and that we want to work with these countries and their people."
Ms. Whelan says the United States has access agreements with several countries, including Ghana and Senegal, for the use of military facilities, such as ports and airfields, when needed. She says those agreements have so far only been activated for rescue missions. And she says that other than the counter-terrorism base in Djbouti, the United States has no plans to seek permanent bases in Africa.
"We have relationships, and, in some places, we actually have agreements that shape the parameters of our access rights. But that, to date, has been sufficient and we don't see any need for anything more," she explained.
The European Command says the military part of these 'Flintlock' exercises will run for two weeks, and will include a disaster relief exercise in Dakar. In addition, the command says humanitarian operations, such as building or repairing schools and water systems, will be carried out alongside the exercises, and will continue into early July.