U.S.-led special-operations exercises that got under way in the scorched scrublands of Burkina Faso last week look much like they have for the past 15 years, with some 2,000 commandos from 32 African, Western and allied countries swapping notes on their martial craft.
American Green Berets coached Senegalese special forces on their favorite techniques for breaking down doors and conducting room-to-room searches. An Austrian soldier trained headquarters troops from Burkina Faso on the mechanics of running offensives. Belgian and Nigerien soldiers road-tripped together for 24 hours across barren landscape to reach a camp in Ouagadougou, the capital city.
But this year’s event has taken on a new sense of urgency in a region facing an onslaught of Islamist militancy, the real world ablaze just outside the schoolyard.
With remarkable speed, several countries in the Sahel, the semiarid belt south of the Sahara, have found themselves infested with violent extremist groups, bolstered by seasoned jihadists returning from Iraq and Syria.
The host for this year’s commando exercises, Burkina Faso, is facing an aggressive insurgency spawned from several al Qaeda affiliates. Niger is fighting militant armies on multiple borders. Chad is witnessing the spillover from Islamic State West Africa’s expansion in Nigeria. Al Qaeda-allied militias in northern Mali are attacking United Nations peacekeepers, armed with weapons smuggled out of chaotic Libya.
One officer from Burkina Faso had to take a break from the exercises to check in on troops conducting actual combat missions.
“I am concerned that we are perhaps applying too little, too late in the resources department,” said Maj. Gen. Mark Hicks, commander of U.S. special-operations forces in Africa. “We’re still behind in the Sahel as the [militant] threat continues to move south.”
The violence is surging at a time when the Trump administration is sending conflicting signals about its military commitment to the continent, a message that worries some West African military commanders.
The Pentagon last fall ordered a 10% cut in the roughly 7,200 U.S. defense personnel in Africa, effective in two phases, a move aligned with the administration’s shift in emphasis from counterterrorism toward strategic competition with China and Russia.
In the first wave of cuts, the U.S. pulled some Special Forces from the Lake Chad area of Niger. U.S. military officials won’t specify where the second round of troop cuts will hit.
“In the Trump administration, there’s skepticism towards things like security-forces training,” which reminds some in Washington of more ambitious and more frustrating efforts at nation-building, said Michael Shurkin, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst now at the Rand Corp. “There’s skepticism about doing anything in Africa.”
The prospect of further troop reduction points to a growing global dilemma for U.S. military strategists, who have been engaged for nearly two decades in fighting Islamist militants from Syria to Afghanistan: how to shrink the U.S. footprint and reduce risk to American troops while protecting U.S. interests and longtime allies.
“It’s a matter of concern for all of us in the Sahel,” Nigerien Col.-Maj.Moussa Barmou said of the U.S. drawdown. “Why do you want to reduce your forces in Africa?” Malian Col. Oumar Diawara asked American counterparts last week.
U.S. commanders say the first cuts haven’t significantly affected their capacity to train and assist elite African units. Gen. Hicks said his troops will focus more on advising locals at a battalion or brigade level, and less on combat missions.
Years of training by U.S., Canadian and European commandos have sharpened the battlefield skills of their African counterparts, U.S. officials said.
In one example, this is the first time African medics—U.S.-trained Chadians—have taught the latest battlefield first-aid techniques to other African forces, using relatively low-cost gear sourced locally.
Burkina Faso is the latest country to face the wave of jihadist violence. Three al Qaeda affiliates have joined up to form Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin, or JNIM, which has become an increasingly lethal presence along the porous borderlands separating Niger and Burkina Faso.
“This is a new threat we’re facing,” said Col. Gilles Bationo, incoming commander of the Burkina Faso army.
Over the past 18 months, militants have hit several targets in Ouagadougou, including the French Embassy, army headquarters and a restaurant where the U.S. ambassador had planned to dine the night of the attack. The U.N. said Tuesday that more than 100,000 people have been displaced by violence. The government has imposed a 6 p.m. curfew in about a third of the country.
“It’s terrifying what’s happening in Burkina Faso right now because it’s coming apart so fast,” said Mr. Shurkin, the former CIA analyst.
Regional leaders warn the instability could spread to the tourist destinations and oil fields of coastal West Africa.
“We’ve also seen attacks on the border with Benin, Ivory Coast and Ghana,” Burkina Faso’s Foreign Minister Alpha Barry said at a recent security conference. “It’s no longer just the Sahel—it’s coastal West Africa, and the risk is spreading regionally.”
The number of violent incidents linked to Islamist extremists across the Sahel has doubled every year since 2016 to reach 465 last year, according to the Washington-based Africa Center for Strategic Studies. Civilian and military fatalities have doubled over the same period, topping 1,100 last year. Peace Corps volunteers are no longer allowed to serve in Burkina Faso, Niger or Mali.
The Nigerien officer, Col.-Maj. Barmou, said he is putting more hope in the five-nation G5 Sahel accord, which allows troops from Niger, Chad, Mauritania, Mali and Burkina Faso to patrol together and cross borders in pursuit of militant fighters.
The group has struggled to coordinate operations and disburse money on time.
“We’re trying to do our best,” said Col. Diawara, the Malian officer.
France has boosted its own military personnel to 4,500, a 50% increase in the past five years. The French military said Friday that it had killed the deputy leader of JNIM, Yahya Abou El Hamame, an Algerian reportedly responsible for kidnapping a number of Westerners in North and West Africa.
The U.S. has trained a counterterrorism unit in Burkina Faso and approved funding for two more. The U.S. is providing $105 million in vehicles, body armor, night-vision goggles and other nonlethal military aid over the 2017-19 period, triple the total for the previous 11 years.
The U.S. is also finishing construction of a drone base in Agadez, Niger, which will provide aerial reconnaissance for allied forces.
Security analysts say it isn’t clear whether the U.S. strategy of improving elite commando units will be sufficient to stem the tide of violent ideology.
West African civilians don’t always share their own militaries’ enthusiasm for the American presence. Critics across the Sahel have long accused their leaders of using Western backing to neutralize dissent and embezzle millions of dollars in aid, charges the governments deny.
The long-term solution, U.S. military and civilian officials say, is economic progress and a sharp improvement in governments’ ability to provide public services and forge political solutions to age-old grievances, such as land conflicts between herders and farmers that militants exploit and aggravate.
Andrew Young, the U.S. ambassador to Burkina Faso, defends the American approach to the Sahel’s troubles, including $100 million a year in development assistance for Ouagadougou. He praises the willingness of regional governments to respond to the threats.
Gen. Hicks is more circumspect.
“I’m not going to try to sell you that we’re winning here,” he said in an interview on the sidelines of the military exercises. “I think we have the right approach.”