'BACK IN COLD WAR MODE'
African armies receive U.S. expertise, ammo
Staff Sgt. Cynthia Ramirez sums up the mission of AFRICOM, the Pentagon's newest command: 'Hearts and minds. And we're showing the bad guys we can go anywhere.' (Tribune photo by E. Jason Wambsgans / January 13, 2008)
Some experts have taken to calling this strategy—not always admiringly—"America's African Rifles" after an indigenous African unit organized by Britain to fight its bloody colonial wars of the 19th Century.
Over the past five years, 21 African countries have hosted military instructors in the biggest-ever U.S. training effort on the continent.
Green Berets have taught troops from impoverished Niger how to parachute from planes. Ugandans have been shown how to patrol their lakes in speedboats. And some 39,000 African troops have cycled through U.S. peacekeeping courses.
Soldiers in the Djibouti branch of this vast effort speak spare, unplaceable English. They are U.S. military trainers from Guam—Bravo Company, 1/294th Infantry Battalion.
"We've worked with hundreds of Kenyans, Ethiopians and now Djiboutians," said Staff Sgt. Albert Ignacio, 44, a fireplug of a man who had spent just 45 days at home during a three-year stint in Africa. "Africans are hungry for our help. They have so little. Most of the time, they don't even have ammo to shoot. We bring it."
In fact, the Pentagon has been bringing ammo and expertise to its African allies with a single-minded purpose since 9/11. Maintaining such programs will be one of the goals of AFRICOM. Yet in the Horn of Africa, the use of such proxy forces has had alarming results.
Critics say the administration's decision to back the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in late 2006 has backfired, strengthening Somali extremist groups and damaging counterterrorism efforts. Today a deadly Islamist insurgency threatens to overrun the capital, Mogadishu, and topple a frail, U.S.-supported government. Inviting comparisons with Iraq, the violence has displaced roughly a million civilians.
Ignacio took a long view of U.S. involvement in Africa.
"We're back in Cold War mode," he said, recalling how he trained Honduran forces during Ronald Reagan's shadow conflicts with the Soviets in Central America. "When will we be done here? Not for a long time."