When It Comes to America's Endless War: Nothing Succeeds Like Failure
Problem partners and ugly outcomes: Why U.S. Special Ops missions in Africa fail to stem rising tide of terror groups, coups, and human rights abuses
"Africa is a challenging place today and one that, if left unattended, is likely to be the birthplace of many more challenges in the future,” Army Secretary John McHugh said recently. Since 9/11, in fact, the continent has increasingly been viewed by the Pentagon as a place of problems to be remedied by military means. And year after year, as terror groups have multiplied, proxies have foundered, and allies have disappointed, the U.S. has doubled down again and again, with America’s most elite troops -- U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) -- leading the way.
The public face of this engagement is a yearly training exercise called Flintlock. Since 2005, it has brought together U.S. special operators and elite European and West African troops to “strengthen security institutions, promote multilateral sharing of information, and develop interoperability among the partner nations of the Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Partnership (TSCTP).”
Directed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sponsored by SOCAFRICA -- the special operations contingent of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) -- and conducted by Special Operations Command Forward-West Africa, the Flintlock exercises have sought to “develop the capacity of and collaboration among African security forces to protect civilian populations across the Sahel region of Africa.” This year, for instance, 1,300 troops representing 28 countries -- including U.S. Army Green Berets -- trained together in the host nation of Chad, as well as in Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Tunisia, conducting mock combat patrols and practicing counterterrorism missions.
Flintlock exercises provide AFRICOM with a patina of transparency and a plethora of publicity each year as a cherry-picked group of reporters provide mostly favorable, sometimes breathless cookie-cutter coverage. (The command has, for years, refused my repeated requests to attend.) Spinning tales of tough-talking American commandos barking orders at “raw,” “poorly equipped” African troops “under the pewter sun” in the “suffocating heat” and the “fine Saharan sand” on a “dusty training ground” in the “rocky badlands” of West Africa, they dutifully report on one three-week U.S. special ops mission.
What goes on the rest of the year is, however, shrouded in secrecy as the U.S. military “pivots” to Africa and shadowy contingents of Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets shuttle on and off the continent under the auspices of various programs. This includes Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET), low-profile missions that lay the groundwork for each year’s Flintlock exercise, providing instruction in all manner of combat capabilities, from advanced marksmanship and small unit tactics to training in conducting ambushes and perfecting sniper skills.
The U.S. military says little about JCET activities in Africa or elsewhere. Special Operations Command, which oversees America’s most elite forces, will not even disclose the number of JCETs carried out by American commandos on the continent. AFRICOM, for its part, refuses to reveal the locations of the missions, citing “operational security reasons and host nation sensitivities.” And what little information that command will divulge only raises additional questions.
According to AFRICOM, special operators conducted “approximately nine JCETs across Africa in Fiscal Year 2012” and 18 in 2013. Documents obtained by TomDispatch through the Freedom of Information Act from the office of the assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs indicate, however, that there were 19 JCETs in 2012 and 20 in 2013. The reports provided by the Pentagon to keep Congress informed of “training of Special Operations forces” show that, from October 2011 to October 2013 (fiscal years 2012 and 2013), there was only one month in which U.S. commandos did not conduct Joint Combined Exchange Training somewhere on the African continent. In all, according to those documents, Special Operations forces spent nearly 2,200 days in 12 countries under the JCET program alongside more than 3,800 African soldiers.
AFRICOM attributes the confusion over the numbers to differing methods of accounting. However one tallies them, such missions increased last year according to figures provided by the command and they seem to be on the rise again this year. In 2014, the number of JCETs jumped to 26. By the end of July, “approximately 22” had already been carried out.
U.S. Africa Command refuses to name the forces it’s training with. All that can be said, in the words of AFRICOM spokesman Chuck Prichard, is that “there are locations where U.S. personnel are working side-by-side with African military members in close proximity to various threat groups.” The documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, however, paint a vivid picture of unceasing special ops missions across Africa -- many in nations with checkered human rights records.
The Company You Keep
Officially, Joint Combined Exchange Training is designed to enable U.S. special operators to "practice skills needed to conduct a variety of missions, including foreign internal defense, unconventional warfare, and counterterrorism." Authorization for the program also allows "incidental-training benefits" to "accrue to the foreign friendly forces at no cost."
In reality, JCETs appear little different from other far more overt U.S. military overseas training efforts. “They have to be able to show that more than 50% of the benefit of this training activity goes to U.S. Special Operations forces,” Linda Robinson, a senior international policy analyst at the Rand Corporation and author of One Hundred Victories: Special Ops and the Future of American Warfare, says of the missions. “Now, of course, the other 49% can be for the benefit of the partner and this certainly is a very strong rationale for doing it -- ultimately that is the overarching goal of these activities.”
Africa Command doesn’t, in fact, shy away from touting the benefits to foreign troops. “JCETs improve the capabilities of African forces to protect civilians from current and emerging threats. The ultimate goal is to enable African states to address security issues without the need for foreign intervention and empower regional solutions to transnational threats,” according to AFRICOM’s Chuck Prichard. Experts, however, question the efficacy of such training missions.
“There’s an unexamined assumption in policy circles that because we have, by our own estimation, the best soldiers in the world -- indeed the best soldiers in all of recorded history -- therefore it must follow that our soldiers have the ability to convey fighting capacity to anybody else that they deal with,” says Andrew Bacevich, retired Army lieutenant colonel and author of Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country. “At root,” he notes of U.S. efforts in Africa, “it’s probably a racist assumption that the white guys are going to be able to teach the ‘lesser breeds’ and somehow lift them up in a military sense.”
From October through November 2011, for example, Green Berets were deployed in Mali to work with 150 local troops. For 45 days, they practiced patrolling and desert warfare, as part of a JCET, according to the Pentagon documents obtained by TomDispatch. “International principles and procedures of human rights will be integrated throughout all phases of training,” reads the report. What effect it had is open to debate.
That same year, the State Department called out Mali due to “several reports that the government or its agents committed unlawful killings” as well as “arbitrary and/or unlawful deprivation of life.” In early 2012, with the next Flintlock exercise to be held there, America’s troops were already in Mali when a U.S.-trained officer overthrew the democratically elected government. Flintlock 2012 was first postponed, then finally cancelled.
The junta soon found itself being muscled aside by Islamist militants whose ranks were joined by American-trained commanders of elite army units, leading to a humanitarian catastrophe, civilian deaths, and savage atrocities at the hands of all parties to the conflict. Years later, after a U.S.-backed French and African intervention, Mali is still plagued by a seemingly interminable and increasingly brazen insurgency and remains a fragile state. “It’s not some place that, by any stretch, you can say we’ve succeeded,” says RAND’s Linda Robinson.
And Mali was hardly an anomaly.
Under the so-called Leahy Law -- named for Vermont senator Patrick Leahy -- the U.S. is prohibited from providing assistance to units “of the security forces of a foreign country if the secretary of state has credible information that such unit has committed a gross violation of human rights.” But this hasn’t stopped the U.S. from conducting JCETs alongside the military forces of African countries with genuinely dismal records in that regard.
From October through December 2011, for example, members of an elite force of Navy SEALs and support personnel, known as Naval Special Warfare Unit 10 (NSWU-10), carried out JCET training alongside soldiers from Cameroon’s elite 9th Battalion Intervention Rapid (9th BIR). That same year, the U.S. State Department noted that the “most important human rights problems in the country were security force abuses,” including killings and the mistreatment of detainees and prisoners. Members of NSWU-10 nonetheless were back in the country in January and February 2012 to continue the training, this time with troops from the 8th BIR, and members of still another BIR unit that August and September. The same year, according to the State Department, members of various BIR units threatened, beat, shot at, and sometimes seriously injured civilians as well as policemen.
In 2013, personnel from NSWU-10 trained with troops from Cameroon’s 1st BIR -- three separate JCETs from January through June. That same year, according to the State Department, “there were reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings,” specifically that members of “the BIR, an elite military unit” were “implicated in violence against civilians.” In September, for example, “three members of the Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR) beat a man to death in a barroom altercation.”
Despite reports by human rights groups that Chad’s security forces were “killing and torturing with impunity,” members of NSWU-10 trained in desert warfare and long-range patrolling with elite indigenous forces there from October through November 2011. According to Amnesty International, during the spring of 2012 the Chadian Army was also recruiting “massive numbers of child soldiers.” But that fall, members of NSWU-10 were back in Chad for a JCET that included training in reconnaissance operations and desert patrols.
In early 2013, while sailors from NSWU-10 and Chadian troops were practicing raids and “heavy weapons employment,” members of Chad's “security forces shot and killed unarmed civilians and arrested and detained members of parliament, military officers, former rebels, and others,” according to the State Department. The next year, according to a United Nations report, Chadian soldiers in the Central African Republic opened fire on a marketplace filled with civilians, killing 30 and leaving 300 wounded. Within a year, U.S. troops were nonetheless back in Chad, playing host to Flintlock 2015, while, reports Amnesty International, “cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishments, including beatings, continued to be widely practiced by security forces... with almost total impunity.”
During 2012 and 2013, JCETs were also conducted in Algeria, where, according to the State Department, “Impunity remained a problem,” and Kenya, where there were “abuses by the security forces, including unlawful killings, forced disappearances, torture, rape, and use of excessive force.”
In addition, the U.S. carried out such missions in Mauritania (“abusive treatment, arbitrary arrests”), Morocco (“excessive force to quell peaceful protests, resulting in hundreds of injuries; torture and other abuses by the security forces”), Niger (“reports that security forces beat and abused civilians”), Senegal (“some reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings”), Tunisia (“security forces committed human rights abuses”), and Uganda (“unlawful killings, torture, and other abuse of suspects and detainees”). Meanwhile, Flintlock exercises were held in Senegal in 2011 (“reports of physical abuse and torture”), Mauritania in 2013 (“authorities arbitrarily arrested and detained protesters, presidential opponents, and journalists”), Niger in 2014 ("some reports the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings”), and this year in Chad.
Discipline and Punish
While AFRICOM refused to name these foreign forces involved in JCET training, the command nonetheless touts the program as a success. “SOF have conducted a series of JCETs with military forces in West Africa in addition to multi-national training events such as the Flintlock series of exercises. These same military units have since formed a regional task force to combat and contain Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin area,” AFRICOM spokesman Chuck Prichard explained. “We’re proud of our ongoing engagement with these military professionals and continue to support their efforts to protect citizens from Boko Haram violence.”
Despite regular tutelage and hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance in the decade since the Flintlock exercises began, the countries of the Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Partnership -- Mauritania, Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, most of them also key JCET partners -- haven’t fared well. Year after year, as the U.S. trained the Nigerian military at Flintlock exercises and worked alongside them during weeks of JCET, for example, Boko Haram grew from an obscure radical sect in northern Nigeria to a raging regional insurgent movement that has killed thousands in that country as well as growing numbers, more recently, in Chad and Cameroon. And it is just one of a number of terror outfits, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Murabitun, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, and Ansaru, a Boko Haram splinter group, that have all been wreaking havoc in one country after another. Even General Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command, couldn’t help but note the bleakness of the situation. “Organizations like Boko Haram pose a significant threat to West-Central Africa... which is destabilizing a large part of the continent,” he said at a conference earlier this year.
At the closing ceremony for Flintlock 2015, AFRICOM commander General David Rodriguez praised Chad and its “African partners” for conducting a military training exercise while also battling Boko Haram. “The capacity to execute real world operations while simultaneously training to increase capacity and capability,” he said, “demonstrates a level of proficiency exhibited only by an extremely professional, capable, and disciplined military.”
But partner forces from Mali or Chad or Nigeria, for example, have hardly shown themselves to be “extremely professional, capable, and disciplined” militaries. In 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry castigated Nigerian security forces for “credible allegations” that they were “committing gross human rights violations.” Last year, according to the State Department, their army “committed extrajudicial killings and used lethal and excessive force.” A recent Amnesty International report is even more damning, revealing evidence of “horrific war crimes committed by Nigeria’s military including 8,000 people murdered, starved, suffocated, and tortured to death.”
U.S. special operators have, in fact, partnered with rogue militaries throughout the region. Last year, the government of Burkina Faso was, like Mali before it, overthrown by a U.S.-trained officer -- a former student of the Defense Department’s Joint Special Operations University, no less. There were also coups by the U.S.-backed militaries of Mauritania in 2005 and again in 2008 and Niger in 2010 as well as a 2011 revolution that overthrew Tunisia’s U.S.-backed government after its U.S.-supported army stood aside.
Despite billions of dollars in aid from U.S. taxpayers as well as training missions and exercises conducted by America’s most elite troops, West African nations find themselves chronically imperiled by a plethora of insurgent groups and members of their own armed forces, with hundreds of thousands of Africans caught up in one conflict, conflagration, or crisis after another.
“Achieving peace, stability, and prosperity in the region begins with ensuring that security forces are well trained and equipped to... deny sanctuary to terrorist cells,” said Colonel Kurt Crytzer, the commander of Joint Special Operations Task Force-Trans Sahara, following Flintlock 2010. Five years, four Flintlocks, and scores of JCETs later, the verdict is seemingly in. Amanda Dory, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs, for instance, recently noted that terrorist incidents on the continent have increased exponentially over the last quarter century, with the pace quickening of late. “The growth in the number of terrorist incidents globally, in particular from 2010, is mirrored in Africa,” she wrote.
AFRICOM’s own 2015 posture statement is hardly less damning when it comes to the state of the region after more than a decade of military interventions. “In North and West Africa, Libyan and Nigerian insecurity increasingly threaten U.S. interests. In spite of multinational security efforts, terrorist and criminal networks are gaining strength and interoperability,” it reads. “Al-Qaida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar al-Sharia, al-Murabitun, Boko Haram, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and other violent extremist organizations are exploiting weak governance, corrupt leadership, and porous borders across the Sahel and Maghreb to train and move fighters and distribute resources.”
For years, AFRICOM’s answer to this increasing instability has been more: more money, more troops, more engagement. Back in 2010, 14 countries took part in the Flintlock exercise. By this year, the number had doubled. RAND’s Linda Robinson is also of the more-is-better school of thought, though in a highly nuanced fashion. “There were a lot of episodic JCETs over the years,” she said in regard to the Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Partnership nations. While stressing that she had not conducted a “deep dive” study of the region, she drew attention to deficiencies plaguing the program. “You have to have a different model. You can’t just string together a bunch of JCETs and an annual exercise, in this case Flintlock. That is not enough to make it work. That doesn’t constitute a successful model,” she said, advocating for a more persistent, though less widespread, U.S. special ops presence in the region.
Andrew Bacevich is far more skeptical. “The assumption that we know how to create armies in other parts of the world is a pretty dubious proposition,” he told me recently. “The Pentagon exaggerates its ability to create effective fighting forces in the developing world.”
Nonetheless, JCETs -- indeed all special ops engagement in Africa -- seem impervious to failure. Since 2006, in fact, the average number of special operators on the continent went from 1% of elite forces deployed abroad to 10%, a jump of 900%. And with worldwide Joint Combined Exchange Training missions set to increase next year, according to Pentagon projections, Africa is a likely site of expansion.
The question is: Will episodic training with militaries regularly implicated in human rights abuses, militaries that overthrow their governments, and militaries that have consistently failed to defeat local terror groups turn them into professional, successful armies when longer-term, more intensive, bigger-budget U.S. efforts to build-up national armies from South Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq have been so ineffective? “It’s not difficult to make the case that we are viewed as aliens,” says Bacevich. “Therefore the prospects of being able to effectively transmit whatever the magic is that makes an army into an effective force is not likely to be in the offing. But still, we’re always disappointed and surprised when it turns out we can’t pull that off."
Gabriel Karon contributed reporting to this article.