Flintlock and the ‘Soft’ American Pivot to Africa

William Harris, Goucher College:

On February 16th 2015, US troops entered the Chadian capital of N’Djamena under scorching 100 degree heat. Their arrival signaled the commencement of the 2015 Flintlock exercise, a military training exercise between the US, African, and other Western armies. Flintlock’s goal is to enhance cooperation and communication for special operations in the region, not to prepare against any specific target. However, the rise of Boko Haram and its increasing destabilizing impact on the region has given rise to speculation that Flintlock may prepare the way for future US-African intervention against the group. While the Middle East has become the main priority for the American military in recent years, the rise of Islamic militancy in Africa has increased pressure for a “soft pivot” to the continent. The United States has learned from its experience in the Middle East and is determined to avoid its past mistakes.

September 11th forced a revaluation of America’s strategic priorities and showed the importance of taking a truly global perspective. Of the four major engagements launched under the banner of Operation Enduring Freedom, two of them (Trans-Sahara and Horn of Africa) were located in Africa. In 2008, United States African Command (USAFRICOM) unified responsibility for the continent that previously belonged to the European, Central, and Asian commands. This high-level reorganization, combined with concrete military operations on the continent, showed that the US was starting to reorient its military priorities to the region. However, rather than launch direct military intervention as in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States chose to emphasize cooperation with the regional governments to fight terrorism. US operations in Africa are primarily focused on training and capacity building, and Flintlock is one of the most prominent exercises that help achieve these goals.

Flintlock has brought together African and Western militaries every year since 2006 to participate in counterterrorism exercises in North and West Africa. This year’s operation includes an impressive amount of international involvement with 25 countries participating. The European allies range from major African players like France and the United Kingdom to peripheral countries like the Czech Republic and Lithuania. African allies are spread throughout North and West Africa, including Niger, Cameroon, and Nigeria. Despite the number of contributors, Flintlock is undoubtedly a US-led operation. Flintlock is directed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and sponsored by USAFRICOM. The level of multilateralism is sufficient to convey an image of the “international community” without impeding American control of the operation. There are no especially strong and stable allies in the region to serve the role of Israel or Saudi Arabia in the Middle East. The US is trying to create the partners they want in the fight against terrorism, and Chad is one of their most attractive options.

Chad has both the motivation and capacity to be one of the most effective American partners against terrorism in Africa. Chad is separated from Boko Haram controlled territory only by a thin swath of Cameroon. Recent advances by Boko Haram have made the Chadian government nervous. Chad’s proximity to Nigeria and the influx of Nigerian refugees fleeing from the violence means that Chad cannot ignore the problem. Chad recently sent troops to the Nigerian town of Gambaru to help drive back Boko Haram forces. Boko Haram has expanded its activities, launching an attack on Nigerian refugees and Chadian military personnel on the shores of Lake Chad. In addition to its clear strategic interest in fighting Boko Haram, Chad’s military has proven experience dealing with scattered militant organizations. Decades of civil war has sharpened the military’s ability to respond to the rapidly changing conditions necessary in counter-insurgency operations. The decentralized, exceedingly mobile tactics used by the Chadian military allows them to fight insurgents on their own terms. Their abilities were proven in Mali in 2013 when they were a decisive factor in the French-led success against insurgents in the northern part of the country. Chad has the potential to be one of the most effective players against Boko Haram, but only within the context of a strong coalition.

The United States wants to create long-lasting partnerships with African states in the fight against terrorism, but there is still a considerable amount of work to be done. The unexpected success of Boko Haram has panicked the Nigerian government and their neighbors. Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan has called on the United States to send combat troops and advisors into Nigeria to fight Boko Haram since early 2014. In reference to the US drone strikes against ISIS, President Jonathan asked “Are they [the United States] not fighting ISIS? Why can’t they come to Nigeria? Look, they are our friends. If Nigeria has a problem, then I expect the U.S. to come and assist us[1].” US involvement in Flintlock is one example of this assistance. While seeking to create a powerful coalition to fight Boko Haram, the US can’t afford to neglect Chad. Unfortunately, despite its strengths Chad is not necessarily the most reliable ally. Rudy Atallah, a former director of African counterterrorism in the Department of Defense, described the Chadian military in Mali as a “blunt edge… in terms of aggressive team players supporting the French, they are doing a great job… based purely on capability to continue the fight on their own, I don’t think they can survive.[2]” Concerns about Chadian staying power are similarly relevant in the fight against Boko Haram. Is Chad going to be able to sustain its offensives after a couple months? While Flintlock is a good start, there is still a lot of work to be done to create the strong, effective African partnership that the United States wants.



[1] http://elombah.com/detail.php?world=30032

[2] http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Africa/2013/0307/In-Mali-fight-Chad-proves-a-powerful-partner-for-France


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