US military trains African armies

2015-02-25 19:56
Security personnel secure the access to the scene of a twin suicide blast at Kano Line bus station in northern Nigeria's largest city of Kano. (Aminu Abubakar, AFP)

Security personnel secure the access to the scene of a twin suicide blast at Kano Line bus station in northern Nigeria's largest city of Kano. (Aminu Abubakar, AFP)

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

Mao - Under the glare of the Saharan sun, a US special forces trainer corrects the aim of a Chadian soldier as he takes cover behind a Toyota pick-up and fires at a target with his AK47 - a drill that could soon save his life.

Chad is sending hundreds of troops to fight Boko Haram in neighbouring Nigeria as part of a regional offensive against the Islamist group, which killed an estimated 10 000 people last year in a campaign to carve an Islamic emirate from the north of Africa's largest oil producer.

At the end of the exercise, a US trainer shows the 85 Chadians the paper target peppered with bullet holes - many of them outside the drawing of a gunman. "Not so great," he says and orders them to do a round of push-ups - in which American, Italian and Belgian trainers all take part, laughing.

The annual 'Flintlock' counter-terrorism exercises are a decade-old US-sponsored initiative to bolster African nations' ability to fight militant groups operating in the vast ungoverned spaces of the Sahara with training.

"Even before the conflict with Boko Haram, we were preparing to face a group like them," said the commander of the Chadian troops, Captain Zakaria Magada, whose Special Anti-Terrorist Group (SATG) is equipped and trained by the United States.

"Boko Haram is just a militia of civilians. We are an organised army. They cannot face up to us."

Chad's armed forces are among the most respected in the region - a reputation forged during decades of war and rebellions, and honed in a 2013 fight against al Qaeda-linked Islamists in the deserts of northern Mali.

But many of its troops are still raw. In the first days of Flintlock, trainers from the U.S. army's 10th Special Forces Group walked them through basics like adjusting the sights of their weapons and properly cleaning them.

The trainers say there is a limit to what can be taught in 3 weeks of Flintlock but the objective of the exercise - which this year groups 1 300 troops from 28 countries - is building relationships among African nations and Western partners.

Efforts to construct a regional African task force to tackle Boko Haram have been hampered by lack of cooperation between neighbouring countries. With that in mind, planners built into this year's Flintlock a cross-border scenario about tackling a militant group modelled on the Nigerian militants.

Rigorous training

"It is all about African nations finding African solutions to their problems," said Major General James Linder, head of US Special Operations Command Africa. "We cannot do that for them."

While France has deployed some 3 000 troops in Africa to combat Islamic militants, the US military has retained a lighter footprint: providing equipment and training to allies while participating in a few targeted missions, such as the hunt for Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) leader Joseph Kony.

Amid calls for the US army to become more directly involved, Linder says its focus on capacity building is part of a long-term vision. By 2050, Africa is forecast to have 2.7bn people - a third of the world's population, he says.

"The global community needs stable countries in Africa and that can only happen through African nations themselves," he said.

The United States stepped up military co-operation with Nigeria following the abduction of nearly 300 schoolgirls by Boko Haram in the village of Chibok in April. However, Washington's refusal to sell Cobra attack helicopters, amid concerns over human rights abuses by the Nigerian military, angered some in Africa's most populous nation.

"If we had enough guns and ammunition, the Nigerian army could finish Boko Haram in a week," said a member of Nigeria's elite Special Boat Services (SBS) attending Flintlock. He said his unit, which has fought against the Islamist group, had received previous training from the US navy SEALs.

As Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Benin prepare to launch their 8 700-strong task force next month, the United States is providing intelligence and equipment. A major shipment of helmets and bullet proof vests arrived in Cameroon this week.

Good use of training

US special forces trainers, however, stress that equipment is not the most important factor in fighting insurgents.

"It's not about the weapons you're carrying, it's about the individual," said the US major in charge of co-ordinating Flintlock, emphasising the need to build relationships with the local population to isolate militant groups.

In the nearby town of Mao military doctors provide free medical treatment to locals and vets treat their animals. After Boko Haram attacked a village just 100km away on the shores of Lake Chad this month, locals say they welcome the military presence.

Yet a decade after Flintlock's launch, some question the effectiveness of Washington's focus on training. Critics point to the presence of US-trained Captain Amadou Sanogo at the head of the 2012 coup that plunged Mali into chaos, or allegations of rights abuses by some African partner armies.

But General Abdraman Youssouf Mery, commander of Chad's Special Anti-terrorist Group, said his troops had made good use of the Flintlock training during the 2013 war in Mali.

"The population in Mali were terrified of giving us information but we used what we had learnt from Flintlock: we helped them and gave them medical assistance," he said. "Slowly but surely, we won them over."

Read more on:    boko haram  |  chad  |  cameroon  |  us  |  niger  |  nigeria

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.
NEXT ON NEWS24X publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.