Opinion: The recent comments by the commander of United States troops in the Africa Command (AFRICOM), MG Marcus Hicks are very sobering yet not really surprising. “I would tell you at this time, we are not winning,” Hicks said last week during interviews with Voice of America.
The general’s comments came during the large military exercise known as “Flintlock” last week was ongoing. Flintlock is an annual regional exercise among African, allied and U.S. counterterrorism forces, and has taken place since 2005. The U.S. has the lead in this annual training which this year has about 2000 commandos from about 30 countries taking part.
Held this year in Burkina Faso, Flintlock, although an exercise, belies the issue which lies barely beneath the surface. Burkina Faso is combatting an active Islamic insurgency from several terror groups aligned with al-Qaeda. The U.N. released figures that stated that over 100,000 citizens have been uprooted and over 150,000 children can’t attend school in the country due to the Islamic threat. And that is just a small part of the problem in the region.
The threat is growing from terror organizations like al-Qaeda, the Islamic State (ISIS) and their offshoots, as they try to spread their tentacles across the Sahel, sub-Sahara Africa. And the local nations are growing increasingly uneasy over how they see the United States reacting to this increasing threat.
The Trump administration is advocating pulling out troops, first from Syria and Afghanistan. And then from Africa. With a renewed focus on threats from China and Russia, the U.S. is switching its focus from counterterrorism to the big conventional battlefield. And it has the locals afraid.
Back in February, Burkina Faso Foreign Minister Alpha Barry told a security conference in Germany, “the threat is gaining ground. It’s no longer just the Sahel, it’s coastal West Africa and the risk of spreading regionally.”
Locally, the commanders know that their troops don’t have the training, numbers, and equipment to stand on their own. Worse, they see a U.S. pullout (the administration wants to reduce troop strength by 25% by 2022) before the threats from terror groups have been eradicated as a potential disaster.
With the U.S. scaling back operations and troop numbers in West Africa, terror groups are striking previously untouched targets. Moving from Burkina Faso thru Niger, insurgents are now actively targeting in the Ivory Coast, Benin, Togo, and Ghana.
The United States has a relatively small footprint in Africa, with about 6000 troops and 1000 contractors at any given time on the ground. Of those about 1300 are Special Operations troops who provide training and advisory roles for the host nation forces.
The French have been doing the majority of the heavy lifting for the counterterror operations in the region. They keep about 4500 troops in the area and have been active in the areas of Niger, Chad, and Mali. In 2013, the French helped forces from Mali rout the al-Qaeda fighters from the north portion of the country.
Unlike the U.S., the French are staying. They received assurances from the Americans, however, that the U.S. will continue to provide intelligence, logistical and aerial refueling support in the region.
The United States has also pledged money to increase security forces in the region. AFRICOM increased spending to $242 million for the G5 Sahel Joint Force which consists of Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad, Niger, and Mauritania. The G5 Sahel Joint Force was first authorized in 2017 and combined the forces of these countries to improve security along their shared borders, improve cooperation and deployment of joint patrols to interdict the flow of terror groups and traffickers that currently cross their shared national borders with ease.
Meanwhile Gen. Hicks “would not recommend more drones or more advisers” presently, but said he wouldn’t advise reducing U.S. troop numbers in the region, either. However, he said that idea that the U.S. is leaving the area completely isn’t true. He characterized it as “a natural transition.”
“We’re trying to avoid as much as possible the kinetic activity that could eventually disenfranchise the people from the legitimate government,” he added.
The problem is that poverty and economic development go hand-in-hand with military problems and the host nations are not equipped to deal with. For now, in the interior of Burkina Faso, Muslims and Christians live alongside one another in harmony. That will never happen with an Islamist terror group gaining a foothold.
And while current training such as “Flintlock” provides valuable training for the troops in the region, commanders had to frequently check on active counterterror operations nearby. One area that the U.S. has increased its presence is in the realm of airstrikes against terrorist targets.
In Somalia alone, thus far in 2019, there have been 23 airstrikes against al-Shabab targets in Somalia, compared with just 47 in all of 2018.
With the threat increasing in Africa, the U.S. won’t at least for the near future, cut any additional troop strength there. But Special Operations personnel advising local forces and at the staff level will be needed along with economic and civic action reforms.
“We aren’t winning” the battle currently as Gen. Hicks has stated, but it doesn’t mean that the war is lost.
Photo: US Army