U.S. soldiers serve a critical mission in Africa as officials are concerned of the far reach of terrorist networks there. (Spc. Michelle C. Lawrence/Army)
Slain diplomats in Benghazi, Libya; a bloody hostage crisis in Algeria; a deadly mall attack in Kenya; and sustained fighting in Mali, Somalia and the Central African Republic.
High-profile flare-ups in Africa continue to mount. Terrorist networks can and have thrived under the civil unrest. And there are concerns now that these networks are extending off-continent and into Europe and the U.S.
But behind the scenes, hundreds of U.S. soldiers are launching counter efforts. Mostly, it’s indirect support — training foreign armies, for example. But other times, it’s kinetic, covert ops.
For conventional missions, the Army is calling in troops from a regionally aligned brigade combat team for trips of a few days or weeks.
The primary force sending troops to Africa is 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division — the “Dagger Brigade” — out of Fort Riley, Kan. Members of the brigade make up most of the East Africa Response Force, which was sent to South Sudan and is under the command of Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, in Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti. A battalion at a time from the 2nd BCT is rotated into the EARF.
The 2nd BCT has sent about 2,500 soldiers to Africa. There are about 100 Regular Army soldiers permanently stationed in sub-Saharan Africa, and 1,140 soldiers are receiving hostile fire pay for Africa deployments, according to an Army spokesman at the Pentagon.
For South Sudan, the Army sent soldiers to support the State Department to secure the U.S. Embassy. For Mali, they trained African peacekeepers preparing to intervene.
U.S. soldiers are also training Rwandan troops to intervene in the war-torn Central African Republic; they have transported Burundian troops in U.S. Air Force C-17s and placed several soldiers in the capital, Bangui.
Col. Pedro Almeida, U.S. Army Africa’s chief of staff, said extremist networks could be getting stronger, making the mission there increasingly important.
“We are concerned about the growth of safe havens for a threat that can be exported and affect our interests in other places, including our European partners and on U.S. soil,” Almeida told Army Times in a phone interview from USARAF’s headquarters. USARAF headquarters is split between Caserma Ederle and Caserma Del Din, Italy.
The 2nd BCT will be replaced for the Africa mission within the year by the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, and leaders from USARAF are readying to travel to Fort Riley for face-to-face meetings to prepare the 4th BCT to take over the mission. As with the 2nd BCT, the 4th BCT will have completed a rotation at the National Training Center that is tailored to the African mission. They will take over “Dagger University,” training started by its predecessor on culture, language and United Nations standards.
USARAF is also reaching outside of the 2nd BCT across the Guard, Reserve and active component, for certified trainers in specialized military occupational specialties, in military intelligence or medicine for example. These troops are receiving short deployments, often from U.S.-based units.
Many soldiers jump at the chance, said Col. Marcus DeOliveira, USARAF’s director of operations, plans and engagements.
“There is some excitement over, ‘Come spend two weeks, or three months in Africa,’ even if you are sitting out in the desert in Niger, training a battalion,” DeOliveira said, adding that there is much work to be done. “We will likely continue with a balance of exercises, security cooperation and assistance, and helping African partners — along with having to do it ourselves or supporting allies.”
With Mali, which saw a coup in 2012, followed by French intervention, soldiers from the 2nd BCT have been supporting French and international efforts. The soldiers, working with U.S. Air Force planes ferrying troops, have been providing movement control and handling cargo over deployments of a few days each.
More recently, soldiers trained a battalion in Niger to conduct peacekeeping operations in Mali and have begun training a battalion in Guinea.
“I think it was a great model of how the U.S. assisted European and African partners without putting a large force on the ground,” DeOliveira said.
By the time these soldiers, from 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, were deployed by CJTF-HoA to South Sudan, the unit had experience working with troops from several African nations, according to Col. John “Boone” Ruffing, USARAF’s director of security cooperation.
The battalion had participated in a large live-fire exercise in South Africa, with that nation’s defense force, and it helped train a battalion from Malawi that intervened in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
More than 4,000 troops participated in the South Africa exercise in August, called Shared Accord. A South African general, alongside an American commander, directed an airborne assault mission and an amphibious assault.
“We didn’t just act as trainers. We were trained by them, and being taught by Africans [who] likely helped the 1/18 on this mission in South Sudan,” Ruffing said.
Troops from Niger taught the Americans how to live in an austere environment, with fewer supplies than they might have had at a forward operating base in Iraq or Afghanistan.
“We were living out in the desert, teaching these guys how to prepare for combat,” Ruffing said. “Some of this security cooperation is not a one-way street.”
Because Africa is large with vast undeveloped swaths, movement for foreign troops is challenging and requires a comprehensive planning and coordinating between agencies, governments and sometimes private companies, DeOliveira said.
“Imagine going into the open desert without the normal support structure we’ve had over the last 10 years,” DeOliveira said. “Flying or driving everything you need for a platoon’s worth of soldiers, living alongside our partners, requires a changed mindset.”
The Army’s capacity-building efforts might be focused on a defense force’s specific skills sets — such as sniper training for troops from Burundi — but it has also focused on institutions. When training a battalion for a specific conflict, for instance, the hope is that the unit will remain effective years later, Almeida said.
In that vein, a soldier team has answered Malawi’s call to improve professional development training for its corps of noncommissioned officers. Through an initiative called the African Military Education Program, Malawi’s defense forces are shaping their curriculum and NCO academy with the U.S. and the U.K.
“That kind of training has a generational effect all the way across its entire force,” Almeida said.
Just as the U.S. military has grappled with how to reintegrate troops after long wars and frequent rotations, so have defense forces in Uganda and Burundi, which have rotated forces through Somalia.
“They come to us and ask, ‘How do you go through this process?’” DeOliveira said.