Capt. Travis Posey, a team leader with Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Africa 14.1, demonstrates the proper way to detain a rioter March 19 during a non-lethal weapons tactics course in Takoradi, Ghana. Experts worry that some U.S. troop rotations to Africa might become entangled with forces or governments connected to human rights abuses. (1st Lt. James Stenger / Marine Corps)
When Secretary of State John Kerry met with several African allies recently, security and stability issues topped his agenda.
His visits coincided with a sharp ramp-up in U.S. military presence in key spots on the continent, which has seen increased jihadist activity and internal conflicts that have spilled over borders. There’s also the fallout from the Arab Spring revolts.
Thousands of U.S. military personnel have dispersed across the continent to train and advise local forces to battle jihadists and other bad actors. Islamist fighters are returning from their battlegrounds seeking to blend local grievances with their cause.
Some experts wonder whether simply training indigenous troops without other societal reforms is a viable strategy.
On any given day, there are 5,000 to 8,000 U.S. military personnel on the ground in Africa, participating in an increasing number of exercises with partners across the continent. The size and nature of the push can be seen through the experience of Maj. Gen. Raymond Fox, commander of II Marine Expeditionary Force, who said that when he took his current job in July 2012, there were about 150 Marines on the ground in Africa. Today, he estimates there are about 2,000.
“We have to get used to operating in Africa, and they have to get used to us,” Fox told a Washington defense conference April 9.
“We want Marines to be as familiar with Africa as they are with Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “I don’t want the first time they see that place to be when they’re going in there for real. So we’re going to deliver a path where Africa sees more of us and we see more of Africa.”
The Marines have fielded an Africa-focused special-purpose Marine air-ground task force, a unit with access to MV-22 tiltrotor aircraft and aerial refueling planes stationed in Morón, Spain.
The Marines have flown the Ospreys as far south as Senegal for training events, but “we need to move [farther] south,” Fox said.
Marine leaders emphasizethey don’t do anything in Africa without first coordinating with the State Department and its local country teams. But their focus on training with as many local forces as possible, in as many locations as possible, has nevertheless raised eyebrows.
The big issue is human rights. Any military-to-military engagement must pass congressional vetting to assure the local unit in question has not participated in human rights abuses. Yet the U.S. is partnering with governments in Nigeria, Uganda and elsewhere that have poor histories of respecting human rights.
That “associates us with those governments, and that’s something we should be extremely cognizant of,” said John Campbell, a retired Foreign Service officer with the State Department.
“When you talk about [U.S. Africa Command] involvement in the training of African militaries that are part of regimes guilty not only of profound human rights abuses, but also characterized by gross misgovernance and alienation from the people that they’re supposed to govern, that’s got consequences,” Campbell said.
While there are “legitimate security concerns, which [Africa Command] has to address, my fundamental problem with all of this is that I see the jihadist activity as directly related to failures of governance and corruption, and we end up being associated with them,” he said.
The Pentagon argues that helping to reform the military and law enforcement sectors in these countries has follow-on effects.
But as terrorist groups and criminal gangs increasingly make common cause to help fund their activities, they “exploit ungoverned and undergoverned territory on the continent,” said Amanda Dory, deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs. “The potential for rapidly developing threats, particularly in fragile states, including violent public protests and terrorist attacks, could pose acute challenges to U.S. interests.”