“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 United States has doubled down again and again, with America’s most elite troops—US 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 US 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 US 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 US 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 US special ops mission.