Troops from 18 countries have quietly assembled in Niger in Africa’s Sahel region for one of the broadest U.S.-run commando training events in the world—and one that signals the escalation of America’s shadowy counter-terrorism campaign in Africa.
The Flintlock 2014 exercise began this week. Staged annually by the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Task Force-Trans Sahara, Flintlock is mostly a counter-terrorism training event, meant to hone African and allied soldiers’ ability to find, capture or kill terrorists, insurgents and transnational criminals.
The Sahel is the region between the Sahara desert and the lusher sub-Saharan Africa. Washington has described the Sahel as an “ungoverned space,” meaning government authority is thin on the ground—perfect conditions for terrorists and other bad guys.
Flintlock exercises began in the 1980s and used to be held all over Africa. In 2005, Flintlock became a strictly Sahel event and every year rotates to different country in the region.
The host might change, but the attendees are often the same: African powers plus America and its closest European allies, including France, Germany and the U.K. Fourteen countries sent troops last year; 18 are present this year.
The war game reflects the Pentagon’s increasing preference for light, secretive Special Operations Forces in the ongoing international campaign against terrorists and other “irregular” threats.
Flintlock exercises are strictly training events—but they often come into contact with actual conflicts. Last year’s exercise took place in Mauritania, which borders Mali, where French and African troops fought a short, sharp war with Islamic rebels last year. Mali hosted Flintlocks 2008 and 2010 and was supposed to host Flintlock 2012, but the Pentagon canceled the exercise because of the fighting there.
It’s not surprising that this year’s exercise is in Niger. The big, arid and landlocked country—one of the world’s poorest—borders Algeria, Libya, Mali and Nigeria, all of which are battling terror groups.
Niger’s government is worried about spillover from these countries, especially Libya. In an interview with Radio France Internationale earlier this month, Nigerien Interior Minister Massoudou Hassoumi said that southern Libya had become an “an incubator for terrorist groups.”
Both France and the U.S. appear to appreciate Niger’s position. The U.S. State Department recently added two groups in Libya, along with one in Tunisia, to its official list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.
And early last year, U.S. Pres. Barack Obama announced that the Pentagon would established a drone base in Niger. France’s American-made MQ-9 Reapers began flying from Niger alongside American drones in January.
Both the French and the Americans insist their drones are in Niger to keep tabs on militants in Mali. It would be surprising, however, if they weren’t also being used elsewhere in the region.
This is all a strong indicator of where the Pentagon’s attention is shifting as the war in Afghanistan winds down.
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