Flintlock demonstrates both the commitment and the limits of U.S. military engagement in West Africa.
TAHOUA, Niger — Just outside this nondescript transit hub nestled between the rocky badlands of the Sahel and the encroaching Sahara, soldiers from Burkina Faso jog in unison. Senegalese commandos march toward a training tent. A Toyota Land Cruiser with an anti-aircraft gun affixed to its cab carries Nigerien military police into a dusty horizon. U.S. special forces lift weights at an impromptu gym.
All of these troops are in Tahoua as part of Flintlock 2014, an African-led military exercise sponsored annually by U.S. Africa Command. Apart from 2012, when Flintlock was cancelled after the proposed host nation Mali descended into chaos, the exercise has taken place every year since 2005 to strengthen the capacity of militaries in the increasingly unstable Sahel region.
This year, Flintlock is being held in Niger, a desperately poor, landlocked West African nation of 17 million that shares long, porous borders with volatile states including Mali, Algeria, Libya and Nigeria. The exercise, which began on Feb. 19 and will run until March 9, focuses on security, counter-terrorism, and humanitarian support. In addition to special forces from the U.S., troops from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Canada, France, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom comprise the approximately 1,000 personnel scattered across four locations.
Though U.S. special forces and their counterparts pride themselves on their ability to leave a light footprint, their presence during these weeks is palpable. A network of military aircraft fly low over villages, shuttling troops and supplies between a transit hub on the outskirts of the capital city, Niamey, and a constellation of forward operating bases further afield.
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