The U.S. has deployed teams of additional U.S. Special Operations soldiers across North and West Africa in recent months as part of a low-profile Pentagon program to counter the spread of al Qaeda affiliates, according to The New York Times.
The elite troops included trainers from the Army’s Green Berets, a force that specializes in training indigenous forces and building host nation armies. The soldiers have fanned out across Libya, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, and are training and equipping African troops.
The program, which is reportedly part of the Pentagon’s “new Africa plan,” includes $70 million in classified spending to assemble counterterrorism battalions in Niger and Mauritania, two nations where progress has been made in forming these teams. Very little real progress has held in Libya, where unrest has spiked in recent months, and Mali, where the government is struggling to stabilize after a coup in 2012.
As the U.S. continues drawing down its troops in Afghanistan over the coming months, the Pentagon is increasingly focusing its attention on Africa and the surrounding region. In March, Adm. William McRaven, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, told lawmakers special operations forces are currently working in more than 70 countries. The command has more than doubled its active personnel from 33,000 in 2001 to nearly 70,000 today to meet a global demand to counter what McRaven called “irreconcilable” extremists growing out of Somalia, Yemen, Syria and North Africa.
The biggest question in this small-team training approach, McRaven said, is “whether or not the host nation wants to have a SOF footprint in their country.” The next question, as the Pentagon has learned in the hunt for the more than 200 girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria, may prove a bit more complicated.
“You have to make sure of who you’re training,” said U.S. Army Africa’s commander, Maj. Gen. Patrick J. Donahue II. “It can’t be the standard, ‘Has this guy been a terrorist or some sort of criminal?’ but also, ‘What are his allegiances? Is he true to the country, or is he still bound to his militia?’”
U.S. forces maintain a marginal but growing presence in 13 African nations, and maintains crisis response teams staged in Italy and Spain. Those teams are on call for operations including embassy evacuations, such as what unfolded in South Sudan in January, and what may be necessary in Libya, where anti-government militias have split their allegiances and continued with violent opposition, including a rocket attack on the prime minister’s home.