Eric Schmitt wrote an article for the New York Times last week that was entitled, ” U.S. Takes Training Role in Africa as Threats Grow and Budgets Shrink”. In it he describes the military strategy that the U.S. is using in Africa as threats from militant Islamist groups, such as Boko Haram, are rapidly growing. He describes how the Pentagon has been using a strategy of providing training to African militaries in efforts to increase their counterterrorism capabilities while simultaneously providing public aid, such as vitamins and mosquito nets, to villagers in order to fulfill their nutrition and health needs and to foster the people’s trust in their own military as a provider. He focuses on training exercises, called Flintlock, that have been taking place since 2006 and have been recently held in Niger, which has become an important country for counterterrorism efforts due to its geographic position bordering multiple countries (Nigeria, Libya, Mali) that have seen rapidly increasing levels of violence committed by terrorist groups.
This strategy has its critics. There are those who approach the humanitarian assistance/public goods provisions with caution as they would suggest the changing of traditional military roles could lead in the long term to undermine civil-military relations and increase the tendency of the military to become more involved in politics and public affairs outside of the areas of national security. There are also critics of this approach who come from the development world who suggest that providing public goods and assistance through the military leads to a militarization and politicization of aid provision that ultimately has negative effects on relief efforts and undermines progress that is being made by some non-government organizations. A third, and much less credible in my opinion, source of criticism of these training strategies is that they serve ultimately to strengthen the military of other countries who may at present time be U.S. allies, but could in time turn to foes who would then use American supplies and training against the U.S. more effectively than would have been possible without these programs. Many of such critics would point to U.S. training that the, now Taliban, received in order to combat the Soviet forces in Afghanistan. This is not a completely fair comparison though as the training the U.S. provided in the 80s in Afghanistan was to militant groups that operated outside of government structures and not the official national military which would be more responsive to civilian control and international norms.
On the other hand, those who support this type of strategy tend to point out the need to enhance the structure and capabilities of African militaries if they are ever to have a credible chance at combating terrorism in the region without relying on foreign militaries to do the job. Either way, those who criticize the strategy as well as those who offer support must both face the reality that the situation has changed in the U.S. and it is no longer desired or feasible in an economic or political sense to send American troops in large numbers and in active roles to areas of global conflict. After what seem to be daunting and less than optimal results in both Iraq and Afghanistan, American policy makers and those who formulate military strategy have decided that these newer means of providing support roles in an attempt to strengthen the effectiveness of local militaries to deal with threats in their countries as well as relying on U.S. allies in Europe to take on more military responsibilities in countries in Africa in which they have more influence due to colonial histories and encouraging local cooperation with the military by distributing needed aid locally are the way, at least for the time being, that the U.S. strategy is heading. It is hard to see a return to the more direct methods previously used in areas that are not of an immediate and highly credible threat to U.S. security in an atmosphere of public fatigue with large military deployments and serious fiscal concerns that demand shrinking public expenditures across the board. The new strategy will soon face more tests of its effectiveness as recent trends in increasing violence perpetuated by African militant Islamist groups continue. Hopefully, strategy formulators are correct and this new way forward will serve to combat threats in the region in a more long-term and sustainable manner while fostering lasting partnerships and relationships with the militaries of U.S. allies in the region.