The first time in a while I have been able to talk about America scaling back it’s direct military presence in remote areas of the World. Obama hinted at the limits of American intervention at his speech at the UNGA last month. However, burying our heads in the sand and pretended threats don’t exist is not an option either. It seems the U.S. has a plan which allows it to remain a global security presence without relying on American “boots on the ground”.
Here on the Kansas plains, thousands of soldiers once bound for Iraq or Afghanistan are now gearing up for missions in Africa as part of a new Pentagon strategy to train and advise indigenous forces to tackle emerging terrorist threats and other security risks so that American forces do not have to.
“Our goal is to help Africans solve African problems, without having a big American presence,” said Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee Magee, a West Point graduate and third-generation Army officer whose battalion has sent troops to Burundi, Niger and South Africa in the past several months, and whose unit will deploy to Djibouti in December.
“Africa is one of the places,” President Obama said at a news conference three days after the commando raids, “that you’re seeing some of these [terrorist] groups gather. And we’re going to have to continue to go after them.”
But with the United States military out of Iraq and pulling out of Afghanistan, the Army is looking for new missions around the world. “As we reduce the rotational requirement to combat areas, we can use these forces to great effect in Africa,” Gen. David M. Rodriguez, the head of the Africa Command, told Congress this year.
Missions that were once performed largely by Special Operations Forces, including the Army’s Green Berets, are now falling to regular infantry troops like members of the Second Armored Brigade Combat Team here at Fort Riley, nicknamed the Dagger Brigade.
“We’re never going to teach them anything about Boko Haram they don’t already know, but we can help them develop their capacity as a military,” said Maj. Bret Hamilton, 38, an Iraq and Afghan war veteran who led the team in Niger.
Before deploying, the troops in Kansas receive six days of cultural training and instruction from Africa-born graduate students at nearby Kansas State University. “The soldiers trained are able to ask about things not in their books,” said Daryl Youngman, an associate professor at the university who oversees the instruction.
Some Africa specialists say that if the goal is to build a cadre of regional specialists, this training seems lacking. “There needs to be a concentrated effort for these forces to have sustained regional language training and expertise,” said Lesley Anne Warner, an Africa analyst with CNA’s Center for Strategic Studies in Alexandria, Va., who has studied the regional brigade concept. “Not having such training defeats part of the rationale for having regionally aligned forces.”
For the South Africans, it was a chance to learn tactics and techniques that American troops refined in Iraq and Afghanistan. For the Americans, it offered an opportunity to gain new insights on African counterinsurgency.
“When the tire meets the tar, that’s when you actually learn the most lessons,” Brig. Gen. Lawrence Reginald Smith, the South Africa force commander there, said in a telephone interview. “What we bring to the table is knowledge of the indigenous people and the rebels who come from those people, including how they act.”
Obama, in referring to “places these groups go”, was talking about how terrorist groups tend to fill the governance-void, buying goodwill through essential services in exchange for a base of operations. Africa certainly has governance and public service delivery issues, making it an ideal place for extremists groups to try to setup shop.
Initially, this program will not be a scaling back of American military expenditure, but rather a shift from fighting to training. In the long run it will allow America to allocate less resources into military programs without compromising our national security and/or that of our allies. While there may still technically be “boots on the ground”, it is much more desirable to have Americans training on ally grounds then fighting in enemy territory.
It would be nice if American troops had language and cultural sensitivity training beyond the 6 days currently being allocated to troop preparation, and perhaps in time more resources will be invested into this aspect. However, language training is a long term task, and generally is outside the pay-grade of the average American soldier. With English as a primary language globally, it makes more sense to have African’s learn English and act as translators then expecting our troops to learn a new language (and expect them not to demand greater compensation for such training). The economic benefit of our troops knowing African languages is virtually non-existent; the economic benefit of teaching African’s English (which many will already know) goes beyond just the training of soldiers and can have a meaningful impact on their earning potential for their whole lives.
This is certainly a long term project, but one which alongside preventative peace-building projects I believe will lead to a more secure Africa. With peace being a prerequisite to sustainable human development, I believe this is a worthwhile project for America to pursue, in both our own and African economic / security terms. It is also a mutually beneficial relationship; America brings in our military expertise and advanced weaponry, while the Africans train us on the local realities we would otherwise not know about.