West Africa: Flintlock - US Special Forces Bolster African Armies

Kongoussi town in Burkina-Fasso
28 February 2019

Despite US special commando raids and drone strikes, as well as military training given to African allies, terrorism in the Sahel region is on the rise. Can the military put an end to the insurgency?

At the Zagreb military camp in Burkina Faso, US Special Operations forces are sharpening over 20 African armies in the art of countering extremist organizations.

Despite the armies coming from so many diverse countries, they show off cooperation in small unit tactics and intelligence sharing.

The Cameroonian assault team, from an elite battalion, uses a drone to track militias. Their intelligence is then shared with over the 2,000 service members participating in the Flintlock 2019.

Flintlock is a US-supported military exercise held and led by an African nation every year since 2005. Hosted this year by Burkina Faso, it's designed to build the capacity of key US allies in Africa.

Flintlock 2019 brings together troops from the G5 Sahel - Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Chad - as well as other African countries.

Building stronger African armies

The Commander of US Special Operations in Africa, Maj. Gen. Mark Hicks, says his goal is to build a strong army on the continent that is fully equipped to deal with the threat.

"When this exercise is over, we have established relationships, intractability training and we have left behind real capability for security forces to be confident and their ability to deal with the security problems they face," he told DW.

The US recently reduced combat operations in Africa following an attack in Niger in which four US forces were killed.

Maj. Gen. Hicks says the US army, however, will continue to advise and train their African allies.

"We are advising at a battalion level and above, and trying to mentor larger groups to conduct larger security operations. That made us all effective and distanced us a bit from direct combat actions."

The US government has about 7,200 personnel in Africa. Of this number, 1,300 Special Forces operate roughly in a dozen countries on the continent.

Challenges facing the G5 Sahel

Burkina Faso is part of the Sahel, a remote and arid region traversing Central and West Africa which separates the Sahara Desert in the north from the savannahs and forests of the south.

In the past years, the Sahel has turned into a hotbed of violent extremism, lawlessness and impoverishment, with many living in a permanent state of neglect. Millions of people have been left at the mercy of non-state armed groups.

It's "mostly poverty and lack of good education" why many in the region join terrorist groups, said Burkinabe Lieutenant Colonel Coulibaly Kanou.

According to the International Crisis Group, armed groups are believed to have killed more than 270 people in Burkina Faso since 2015.

The country - once considered a safe tourist destination in West Africa and famed for its biennial film festival, FESPACO - now lives with a spreading terror threat.

Terrorist attacks in Burkina Faso

- September 15, 2018: Nine civilians killed in two terrorist attacks in the east

- August 28, 2018: Seven soldiers killed near Fada N'Gourma

- August 11, 2018: Six people killed some 100 km away from Fada N'Gourma

- March 2018: 16 people died at the French Embassy and the Army headquarters

- August 2017: 19 people killed at the Aziz Istanbul restaurant in Ouagadougou

Tackling the root causes of instability

The Sahel is flooded with challenges -- ranging from food insecurity and terrorist-related security threats to the negative impacts of climate change.

For the region to change for the better, the focus needs to be put on sustainable development, rather than purely on security, says US Ambassador Andrew Young.

"We see a situation where Burkina Faso is in a fight, and the fight is getting tougher," he told DW.

"But we are making progress against that fight, and it's going to be a struggle of long term. That's why our investments in development partnerships are long term," he added.

The US government invests €87 million ($100 million) annually in economic development projects to Burkina Faso with an additional €26 million ($30 million) for security.

Coupling this foreign investment with the political will to address economic challenges facing Sahel countries and West Africa gives Maj. Gen. Hicks hope that terrorism will be defeated.

"Our African partners give me reasons to be optimistic about the future of Africa. Not just from the security perspective, but from extending democracy and inclusive governance, providing economic opportunities to the young and vibrant population."

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