Posted by The Vanguard on
US troops are holding military exercises for Nigeria and eight other West and North African countries aimed to lay groundwork for security co-operation, in the shadow of an attack in Mauritania that has raised the spectre of cross-border terror in the isolated and volatile region.
BAMAKO—US troops are holding military exercises for Nigeria and eight other West and North African countries aimed to lay groundwork for security co-operation, in the shadow of an attack in Mauritania that has raised the spectre of cross-border terror in the isolated and volatile region.
Representing all four branches of the US military, 1,000 troops have arrived for two weeks of exercises under way in Mali, Algeria, Chad, Niger and Mauritania. “This is a historical exercise because never before have so many African countries participated in such a joint operation,” Major Holly Silkman of the US European Command said of Operation Flintlock.
“It’s a counter-terrorism measure focusing on the border areas in the trans-Sahara region, to show that wherever there are terrorists, we will help root them out,” she said.
Though the multi-million-dollar operations have been planned for some time, they come at an opportune time for the region, long feared to be a potential incubator for radical and violent fundamentalism.
Insurgents claiming affiliation with the Algerian hardline Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat swooped onto a remote military base in northeastern Mauritania on June 4, killing 15, wounding 17 and carrying off two hostages as well as an assortment of vehicles and military equipment.
Amid skepticism by senior Algerian military officials that the GSPC could mount such a major operation, its ranks thinned by 10 years of pursuit, the group with known links to Al-Qaeda said on a website that it waged the attack in revenge for Nouakchott’s weeks-long crackdown on the country’s Islamist movement.
There was no change to the curriculum in the wake of the attacks, however, which will continue through June 26 with training in tactics such as orienteering, basic marksmanship and field communications for some 3,000 African troops.
At the weekend, Senegal will host a two-day counter-terrorism training scenario, to also involve Morocco, Tunisia and Nigeria, which underscores the importance of Africa’s largest country, Silkman added. “There is a lot of wealth and potential for trouble because Nigeria’s oil is a major focus of many countries,” she said.
Building on a two-year effort in Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Chad, the US Congress recently approved a budget of $100 million over five years, from 2007, for the new Trans-Sahara Counter-terrorist Initiative, expanding to cover the other countries in the current exercise, which runs through June 26.
Such a militarisation of US involvement in west Africa, among the world’s poorest countries shorn of public infrastructure, risks alienating populations and establishing breeding grounds for the kind of radicalism the United States is trying to avoid, critics such as the International Crisis Group contend.
But, according to Silkman, “infrastructure development is tough if there is no stability, and you cannot have stability without security.”
The exercises also aim to foster tighter relations between the well-funded and outfitted US military and the armed forces in its poorer partners, many of which can only just clothe and arm their troops.
As the sun set on the military air base in Bamako, four Malian soldiers solemnly went through their flag-downing ritual, the notes of a battered horn all but drowned out by the humming air conditioners blasting frigid air through the warren of US tents erected on the base.
“They are giving us courage, they are out there everyday, regardless of the weather, running around and training so perhaps we can learn from that,” said one of the Malians, who wore flip flops instead of the heavy scuffed boots of his companions. But they have the means to do everything, while we are poor and making do with the little we have.”
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