Western countries’ military role in Africa has become essential in peacekeeping. This past month the French sent 1,000 rapid deployment troops to the Central African Republic, and then followed up with another 600. The French government is trying to avoid committing large numbers of soldiers to countering local sectarian conflicts. Make no mistake, this is clearly more of a political than military decision, though last year they had to rush aid to Northern Mali to retake Timbuktu from a large well-organized jihadist terrorist group.
Paris knows full well that political life in many of its former African colonies is a matter of just waiting for the next coup, rebellion, or terrorist attack. Long ago they were aware that in spite of extensive and continuing programs aimed at instilling a French sense of democracy, the indigenous cultures of physical intimidation and political chicanery would predominate. The best the President’s Office at the Elysée could expect would be an intelligent and strong leader who looked to his earlier mentor and sovereign on key issues. Of course that is the dream of all former colonial nations.
The British have taken a different tack in Nigerian and East African situations where terrorist activities rose to a level that local army and security were unable to handle. While considerable advisory and training assistance is made available to East African commands, specifically counterinsurgency and communications, unlike the French the British have not sent in combat units to control local situations. The exception to this statement is the covert involvement of small SAS teams operating directly with specialized indigenous units. This is especially true in Nigeria’s Muslim north and the independence-minded southern oil producing delta area.
Of course, those are the contemporary ramifications of what immediately after Africa’s decolonization was a continuation of various portions of the previous military security relationship. France maintained an active military contingent in the Ivory Coast and elsewhere in former French West and Equatorial Africa as well as Djibouti in the east after the end of the Algerian War. The British rotated various regular army units in and out of Kenya during the Idi Amin administration in neighboring Uganda. For a lengthy period regular army elements of the various colonial powers would slip into and out of African sites with full knowledge of the local governments. Many of the early dictators of the newly independent African nations were very happy to have this paternalistic back-up available.
Aside from a U.S. Marine “protection/extraction” op in Liberia when the embassy was endangered, and some covert Special Operations elsewhere later on, U.S. ground forces rarely have been present on African soil in any conspicuous manner. In the 1980s American military interest in Sub-Saharan Africa was monitored via the Special Forces Command (10th SFG) in Stuttgart, Germany. Briefly in the ’60s a small company of the 82nd Airborne Division as well as air transport assets took up residence at the main Kinshasa airport at Ndjeli and in the interior of the Congo at Kamina airbase. Both had been constructed previously by the Belgian colonial power as a NATO facility and were then being used to support Belgian and French paratroopers who assaulted Stanleyville (as it was called then) held by a large anti-Mobutu government rebel group. No U.S. troops were said to have seen action other than the USAF C-130s that dropped the French and Belgian paras.
Since the conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, the presence of U.S. armed forces has increased in Sub-Saharan Africa through African-designated Special Forces training teams and a network of mostly rudimentary airfield facilities capable of NATO-related support activities. For many years — and presumably presently — American Special Forces held joint maneuvers with their Egyptian counterparts. None of these assets came into play during the recent Benghazi, Libya assault on the American mission. Supposedly, relatively nearby U.S.-trained Egyptian Special Forces were prevented by diplomatic “sensibilities” from intervening. This is a side of the Benghazi debacle that yet has to be explained.
The one aspect of military assistance not discussed is the long-time relationship that the Israeli military has had with various African nations. Virtually everywhere that an Israeli military attaché office exists there is an active program of cooperation in training with local armies and/or police. In some instances, such as during Mobutu’s reign in the Congo, Israeli officers took an active role in the anti-insurgency training of the para-commando regiment of the Congolese Army. Parachute training has become one of the features of this type of activity over the years in several pro-Israel African states.
European ground forces are thought of most frequently as participants in African military aid programs. However, U.S. and other NATO countries’ naval ships, as well as international sea forces of diverse countries such as China, India, and Pakistan, have aided in several instances of anti-smuggling and piracy operations. NATO air assets have been active in a full range of transport and support activities in an increasing degree in recent years. The role of NATO military assistance at all levels in Africa, especially Sub-Sahara, is carefully not emphasized or for that matter even noted. It does exist, nonetheless, and often is the difference in the success or failure in African security issues.
Finally, the United Nations peacekeeping operations list eight of their activities located in Africa. The work of these “blue helmets” is essential in maintaining a security presence in key locations — both areas of hot conflict and daily policing. These Africa-assigned units from nations all over the world represent more than half of the peacekeeping operations of the UN globally. Perhaps this is the best measure of Africa’s priority need for continent-wide military security.