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African militaries wonder what ‘America First’ means for them

March 13, 2017 (Photo Credit: Alan Lessig/Staff)
CARLISLE, Penn. — African top brass, representing nearly half of the countries that make up the continent, came to the Army War College last week and made the case for stronger leadership roles as they combat challenges in their respective nations.

But while the African military leaders there said they want to take the lead and, in some cases, feel capable, U.S. assistance is indispensable in helping build capacity to deal with a diverse array of challenges.

On any given day, about 2,000 U.S. soldiers are deployed to Africa to conduct theater security cooperation activities, train with African partners and participate in exercises. And prior to last November’s U.S. presidential election, that number was expected to grow.

The acknowledgement by African military leaders that U.S. security assistance is still badly needed comes at an uncertain time for U.S. foreign policy and military involvement abroad. With the new U.S. president’s stance that America must come first, it remains to be seen what military commitments abroad will be prioritized and what could come to an end.

The officers landed in the United States at around 1:00 a.m. March 6 from nations like Botswana, Mali, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Ghana and a host of others, to spend a week at the the Army War College, discussing candidly how they might strengthen ties with the United States and with other African nations and to learn from one another on successful (and not so successful) efforts to bring security and stability to their countries.

Malawi’s chief of defense, Gen. Griffin Spoon Phiri, told Defense News his country needs partners that can help train and educate, fill resource gaps and share information and intelligence. He saw the symposium as a way to foster relationships and learn from other nations.

But he said these partnerships should not be unequal. “I think we need to have a very frank discussion of what we mean when we talk of partnership. I am looking for a partnership that we have no junior partner or senior partner,” Phiri said. “I’m looking for partnership that will work alongside, based on mutual trust.”

Phiri said he was “happy to report” that a sergeant major school the U.S. Army helped to establish in Malawi in 2015 was now led by Malawi’s military, with the United States serving in an observational role.

To combat the Ebola crisis in Liberia, security forces there partnered with the U.S. Army to combat the disease in 2014 and 2015. Liberia gratefully accepted the American contributions in helping to set up treatment centers and deal with logistics, but made sure it was the face of the effort.

“The fact Liberia saw its own people in the lead helped to build confidence and trust between the Liberian military and its people,” Dr. Monde Muyangwa, director of the Africa program at the Wilson Center, said at the symposium on Tuesday.

She added, “What I really heard from that message is the time for paternalism is dead. We need partnerships that enhance Africa's ownership, and everyone in African countries are coming with fewer resources, but it does a lot of good when the face that is at the forefront is an African face.”

The U.S. Army plans to continue a robust number of multinational and binational exercises this year on the African continent to strengthen partnerships with African nations while simultaneously enhancing U.S. Army readiness, Maj. Gen. Joseph Harrington, the U.S. Army Africa commander, told Defense News.

Shared Accord, for example, will flex the military muscles of both the army in South Africa and a brigade’s worth of troops and equipment from the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division, plus a sustainment brigade, over the course of three weeks in July, Harrington said.

The large exercise will help the Army determine how it can best flow equipment and people into the country and tap into its Army Prepositioned Stock, set up in the combatant command for rapid U.S. military response.

Big exercises like Shared Accord and Central Accord are becoming brand names like Coke or Pepsi among African militaries, and playing host for such a drill is considered a coveted job, a few U.S. Army leaders noted.

Brig. Gen. Kenneth Moore, deputy commanding general for U.S. Army Africa and commander of the Army Reserve engagement cell in the region, said the exercises also heavily involve reserve soldiers and that they are crucial to building readiness within that force. The exercises provide invaluable training that simply can’t be done at home, he said.

Through the ramp-up in partnerships and training exercises, the U.S. Army has come a long way in understanding the 54 countries that make up Africa, Harrington noted.

With all the activity on the continent, Congress in its fiscal year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act called for a specific study on the U.S. strategy for defense interests in Africa in coordination with the State Department. The study is to re-examine security cooperation efforts and attempt to measure program effectiveness and African nations’ ability to absorb U.S. assistance.

A key question left unanswered is how well African nations and international forces are partnering, and what kinds of improvements should be made, Muyangwa, of the Wilson Center, said.

For instance, one African general noted there might be too many cooks in the kitchen when it comes to training efforts in Somalia. At any given time there could be one unit trained by Ethiopia, one by the United Arab Emirates and so on, and it’s difficult for the Somalian army to come together as one national force, the general said.

“We are perhaps at a period of strategic adjustment,” Frank Jones, a professor at the Army War College, said at the symposium. "And by that I mean a time in which we, the United States government, need to look at our interests on the continent and I would suggest that perhaps that begins with an understanding specifically what our security interests are there.”
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