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In shift to Africa, U.S. troops find complicated relationships

Apr. 19, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
New Challenges: A US soldier participates in the Shared Accord military exercise with South African troops.
New Challenges: A US soldier participates in the Shared Accord military exercise with South African troops. (US Army Africa)
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WASHINGTON — Lt. Col. Lee Magee had been on the ground in Africa for less than four days when the call came in to gather his troops and get on a plane to South Sudan.

The commander of the U.S. Army’s 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division — the service’s newly minted East Africa Response Force — would soon find himself and his 45 soldiers on an airfield in Juba, the new nation’s restive capital, working with local forces and U.S. Embassy staff to stiffen protection at the American diplomatic compound as violence intensified across the country.

Four months after that Dec. 18 flight, a platoon of U.S. soldiers continues to guard the embassy gates, though Magee and the majority of his troops returned to their base in Djibouti in early February.

The East Africa Response Force (EARF) is one component of the service’s larger Regionally Aligned Force concept, which marries a brigade with a geographic combatant commander to strengthen the commander’s capabilities in both crisis response and in conducting training and security assistance.

The EARF, like the U.S. Marine Corps’ new Africa-focused Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force-Crisis Response, was established just after the September 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens along with three other Americans. The units have been designed to give U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) a quick-reaction capability across the vast continent.

Benghazi “changed AFRICOM forever,” Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Raymond Fox, commander of II Marine Expeditionary Force, told a Washington-area conference on April 9.

Before the NATO-led bombing campaign in Libya in 2011 and the Benghazi attack, AFRICOM had mostly been focused on providing humanitarian relief and some military-to-military training activities, something commanders pushed as a selling point to stand in stark contrast to the firepower Washington deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

“If you look at what AFRICOM was supposed to be before Benghazi, it was all about building partner capacity in addition to the hard counterterrorism work,” said one analyst who requested anonymity due to ongoing work with the Pentagon.

“By the time 2009 and 2010 rolled around and you saw that budget cuts were coming, AFRICOM had to start justifying itself to the Beltway. You really saw that manifest itself in the way that the political sector reacted to events in Benghazi,” the analyst said.

But the Pentagon has more capacity to devote to AFRICOM than at any point since its inception in 2006, with only 33,000 troops now deployed to Afghanistan compared with almost 200,000 at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“What we’ve had since about 2001 is what we would classify as a suppressed demand signal, in the sense that there’s always been a requirement [in Africa] to do a lot of stuff, but we haven’t had the capacity to do it,” said Col. James Learmont, a British Army exchange officer working on the U.S. Army’s regionally aligned forces concept.

“What used to be done by a contractor from the Department of State, the Army is now saying, ‘Look, we are now available, and if the chief of mission [from the U.S. State Department] thinks the Army offers a better solution, we have the capability to do it,’” he added.

There have been concerns raised in recent months over the so-called militarization of American policy in Africa.

But “nothing goes on in these countries without the chief of mission being aware of it,” the civilian analyst said. The issue, however, is that “some ambassadors aren’t quite sure how to manage a DoD presence in these countries, and they’re not quite sure how to exert their authority over them.”

Much of what the Army and Marine Corps are doing revolves around small-scale, short-duration training and advisory missions. The Army is training troops from Niger to take part in the French-led stability mission in neighboring Mali, and has trained Burundian snipers and infantry to deploy to Somalia.

New policy in action

It was in Niger earlier this year where Magee saw one of the side benefits of his unit’s deployment take hold — the slow, laborious process of building trust between U.S. and local forces. His men were deployed on a 10-week training mission with Nigerien troops dozens of miles outside of the capital of Niamey, when a series of terrorist attacks rocked the area.

“It was supposed to be a joint training team between the U.S., French, State contractor trainers,” he said.

But when the attacks hit, “my guys stayed and everybody else had to get back to the capital and get under lockdown. We dug foxholes right next to them and did PT with them in the mornings — that made a huge difference in how they perceived us and their understanding that we were there to help.

“One of the comments by the Nigerien battalion commander when he was talking to his superiors and the ambassador was, ‘These foxholes were dug by American and Nigerien soldiers at the same time.’ ”

The episode drove home to the American officer that “this is a combat deployment as far as my soldiers are concerned." That said, one of the biggest differences between this deployment and other recent deployments for US troops to Iraq or Afghanistan to train local forces, Magee said, is that “we’re not getting shot at, and I hope to keep it that way.”

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